House advances bill to block state self-driving laws

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — States would be prevented from passing laws regulating self-driving cars, and thousands of cars without steering wheels or brake pedals could be tested anywhere in the United States under a bill advanced Wednesday by a U.S. House of Representatives panel.

The measure, which would represent a big win for carmakers, is a departure from the Obama administration’s proposed voluntary guidelines under which manufacturers would certify that the technology met certain safety guidelines before hitting the road.

The proposed legislation prohibits states and other local jurisdictions from adopting regulations related to cars’ design, construction, software or communication. States still would be allowed to regulate registration, licensing, liability, education and training, insurance or traffic laws.

Michigan had already taken steps to position itself as a haven for self-driving car testing: The state Legislature passed into law last year a measure that allows robotic cars to be operated on any Michigan road without a driver behind the wheel.

John Maddox, president and CEO of the American Center for Mobility — a test facility for autonomous cars being built at Willow Run in Ypsilanti — said he’s not concerned that a law setting uniform standards across state lines would have a chilling effect on Michigan’s efforts.

“That’s actually helpful,” he said. “If a vehicle had to stop operating in autonomous mode when it gets to the border of a state, that would be bad for transportation.”

Fall vote expected

Wednesday’s approval by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee came despite unresolved differences between Republicans and Democrats about the number of test vehicles that would be exempt from federal safety standards that require that a human to be in control of the car.

Other issues also remained unresolved: Whether self-driving cars could be sold directly to consumers instead of through the dealerships required in most states now — and the degree of cybersecurity protections that will be necessary to prevent hacking.

Supporters of the measure expressed confidence that those issues can be resolved in time for a vote of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee that could come as early as next week. Backers anticipate a full vote of the House will not come until the fall.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate also are working on a bipartisan bill to regulate self-driving cars. They have released a set of principles that call for prioritizing safety, promoting innovation and strengthening cybersecurity, but have not agreed on specific language.

U.S. Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, the House panel’s chairman, said Wednesday: “Today’s markup represents the most significant step this subcommittee has taken to date to ultimately enact comprehensive legislation on self-driving technologies and services.”

Democrats on the panel said they are willing to keep negotiating with Republicans over the sticking points that were left unresolved. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, the top-ranking Democrat on the panel, said it was most important to “get it right.”

Safety groups have complained that prohibiting states from passing self-driving laws is unacceptable.

A coalition of seven safety advocacy groups sent a letter to leaders of the House panel the night before Wednesday’s hearing. “The broad pre-emption of state laws is totally unacceptable,” the groups said. “States must not be precluded from fulfilling their role to protect their citizens.” The letter also objected to loosening existing federal safety standards for testing.

That letter was signed by representatives of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, Consumer Federation of America,, Truck Safety Coalition and the Trauma Foundation.

The legislation that advanced Wednesday is a big departure from the Obama administration’s proposed self-driving guidelines, which called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report information about self-driving testing to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.

Under the Obama administration’s proposed rules, which were nonbinding, automakers and technology companies would have had to meet a set of 15 guidelines before they could place self-driving cars on public roads. Automakers complained that such reporting could reveal proprietary information.

The new proposal would require information related to highly automated vehicles to be treated as “confidential business information.”

Getting ahead of rivals

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for major automakers in Washington, said it supports efforts in Congress to greatly expand testing of robotic vehicles.

“For many years, automakers have been developing self-driving vehicle technologies that promise to transform mobility — offering greater safety, fuel savings and independence,” the group said. “So automakers want to move as quickly as possible to safely test and deploy these vehicles.”

Supporters of the measure argued Wednesday that it is imperative for the U.S. to get ahead of regulating self-driving cars before other countries put them on the road first.

“Automated vehicles are going to be developed, whether we like it or not,” panel member U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said during Wednesday’s hearing. “The question is whether the U.S. will remain in the driver’s seat, as to China, Japan or even the EU, who are also making serious investments in this space.

“If we are serious about promoting high-tech jobs and want this next great wave of manufacturing and R&D to take place here in the United States as opposed to overseas,” she continued, “then we need to have a strong, flexible regulatory framework for highly automated vehicles that always puts safety first.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing