Automakers push for movement on 'critical' rules for self-driving cars

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — A group of nearly four-dozen automakers, industry advocacy groups and corporations sent a letter to Congressional leaders Wednesday urging action on legislation that would allow for greater deployment of autonomous vehicles. 

The Coalition for Future Mobility, which includes representatives from all major automakers selling vehicles in the United States as well as startups focused on AVs, argued there is a "critical need" for a federal framework allowing for AV development and roll-out. 

They called on lawmakers to maintain the balance of power between local and federal government — currently, the federal government regulates vehicles and states and cities regulate drivers, posing a potential problem for a future in which those two become one — and create "rigorous safety standards" for the new technology. 

Ford Motor Co. and autonomous-vehicle partner, Argo AI, will begin testing its fourth-generation technology on the Escape Hybrid crossover.

"The U.S. is at the forefront of innovations that will transform transportation," the group wrote. "As we approach a pivotal moment in the evolution of this technology, we have an opportunity to work collaboratively and chart a course that sustains U.S. leadership and innovation of these critical safety and mobility solutions for decades to come."

American companies developing autonomous vehicles fear they may fall behind competitors in other countries — namely, China, which is a leader in the space — due to regulatory challenges at the federal level. 

Existing safety standards assume the presence of a human driver, which requires automakers to seek waivers from federal regulators to develop cars without traditional controls such as steering wheels or pedals. 

Each company can seek an exemption from the rules for up to 2,500 vehicles. But industry advocates say that is both too low to justify the massive costs of creating the vehicles to be tested and that it puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.

There have been efforts in Congress for years to pass legislation that expand that cap, among other changes. However, those attempts failed after lawmakers raised concerns about the division of federal and state powers, and safety advocates argued the bills didn't go far enough to direct how and when the government would be responsible for regulating the burgeoning technology.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, has said he's dedicated to trying again to reach a solution in the new Congress, and newly-confirmed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to help. 

Industry advocates say they believe the Biden administration may be more willing than the Trump administration to take action to regulate AVs going forward.

Twitter: @rbeggin