Lawmakers tour auto show as self-driving rules idle
Members of Michigan’s congressional delegation toured the Detroit auto show Tuesday morning, touting their legislative efforts to clear the way for self-driving cars as automakers took turns showing them models with semi-autonomous features.
“I think today’s show is really about technology and where the auto industry is going in the future,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said as he toured the Ford Motor Co. stand at the North American International Auto Show.
Peters has worked on a bill in the U.S. Senate that would allow automakers to sell more than 100,000 self-driving cars a year. A similar measure has already been passed by the U.S. House, a fact House members who toured the show were eager to point out. Right now, federal rules require cars to have a human operator. The pending legislation would allow automakers to apply for exemptions if they can prove their self-driving cars can match the safety of existing traditional cars.
“We need to get this thing moving,” Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said as he took in the Audi stand and viewed the German automaker’s A8L Quattro, which is capable of driving itself on highways at about 35 miles per hour by using Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot system.
Upton touted the potential benefits of self-driving cars for elderly drivers and the possibility of reducing the number of crashes on U.S. highways.
“My dad’s 93. World War II vet. We took his keys away a couple of years ago. He didn’t like it,” Upton said. “My mom, she’s 88, she’s got some vision problems. Neither one of them drives today. They would love a car like this. They can go to the grocery store. They could go to church. Now they have to rely on friends to go to church. They could go have dinner. It impacts their life. It’s going to be here. You’re not going to have to take the keys away from me.”
Upton added: “The impact with seniors will be enormous. Much more importantly is the death toll, we’re averaging 45,000 people dying (a year). Ninety-five percent of those (fatalities) are driver error. We sure know why: speaking, phones, distractions, speeding, potholes.”
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said she was “impressed with the conversations about mixed metals, making cars more efficient; the excitement about the increased use in California of the electric vehicles” at the auto show.
“I was at one station, they talked about how the technology has increased in the vehicles,” she said. “You always love the beautiful cars, but what I’m interested in is the manufacturing. What are we doing, how are we increasing it? Increasing fuel efficiency. What do we need to do as a federal agency?”
Lawrence said the technology on display in Detroit shows lawmakers will not be able to rest on their laurels after passing the self-driving bill.
“I sit on Transportation (and Infrastructure Committee) and one of the things we’re going to have to do is build technology into our roads so that there is connectability,” she said. “The cars can’t just operate autonomously with the technology. When we are talking about infrastructure, (we have to) make sure that we’re building in the technology so that we can truly have these autonomous vehicles.”
The Trump administration has talked about passing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, but Lawrence said she is skeptical after the president has focused on other issues in his first year.
Peters expressed optimism that the Senate will be able to join the House in passing the self-driving bill.
“It’s incredibly important to get it through, so we’re working very hard to make that happen,” he said. “We’re trying to get it through unanimous consent, but that means we’ve got to deal with some specific issues that people have raised. I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to move it soon.”
Peters said he is confident lawmakers have struck the right balance between ensuring the safety of self-driving cars and allowing automakers to have wide latitude to experiment with new technologies.
“It creates the space for the technology to continue to move, while still understanding that you have to jump through some hurdles to make sure the automobiles are safe before they get out on the public road,” he said of the Senate’s self-driving legislation. “Safe not only from a crash standpoint, but also from a cybersecurity standpoint.”