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House advances bill to clear road for self-driving cars

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Automakers each would be allowed to test up to 100,000 self-driving cars per year on U.S. roads, and states would be prevented from passing laws to prevent them from doing so under a bill advanced Thursday by a panel in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The measure, unanimously approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would allow the Secretary of Transportation to grant exemptions to federal motor vehicle rules that require cars to have human operators for 25,000 cars per automaker initially if automakers can prove they meet existing safety standards for traditional cars. After a 12-month period, the number of exemptions per manufacturer would increase to 50,000, and it would go up to 100,000 in the third and fourth years.

The current limit for such exemptions to federal auto standards is 2,500 cars for two years at a time. Under the bill approved Thursday, exemptions to federal auto standards would be limited to three years at a time.

The measure was approved after a week of backroom negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the panel over issues involving the number of test vehicles that would be exempt from federal safety standards requiring a human to be in control of the car and the length of time those exemptions would be good for.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the compromise legislation represented a rare bipartisan consensus in a typically bitterly-divided Washington.

“Our aim was to develop a regulatory structure that allows for industry to safely innovate with significant government oversight – as safety must be the chief priority,” the panel’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said.

“It’s bipartisan. This preserves the ability of states to act like they already are,” added U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, noting that most states do not have the capacity or desire to regulate auto safety instead of focusing on licensing and registration.

The version of the bill that was approved Thursday requires the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule requiring automakers to submit a safety assessment certification for their self-driving cars within two years of passage of the measure.

In the interim, the legislation directs carmakers to submit letters to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that mirror a set of 15 guidelines that were recommended by the Obama administration in 2016 that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on testing and safety to federal regulators before autonomous cars are sold to the public. Under Obama’s proposal, automakers would have been required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if those systems fail before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads.

Democrats on the panel had sought to greatly reduce the number of exemptions that would allow automakers to put thousands of self-driving cars on the road in the immediate future, but they said they could live with the compromise that calls for gradually increasing the number over several years.

“I would have preferred no pre-exemptions period, but we were able to narrow it,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said.

Automakers praised lawmakers for moving the bill to increase the number of self-driving cars that they can test on U.S. roads. The Washington, D.C.-based Association of Global Automakers, which represents foreign-owned manufacturers, said the unanimous vote “is a critical step towards saving lives on America’s roadways.”

Safety groups have complained the exemptions give automakers too much freedom to test self-driving cars on roads with other drivers.

“Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the gap left by federal inaction on safety standards leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director, said in a statement.

The new 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.

Supporters of the measure moving now in Congress anticipate a full vote of the House will come in the fall.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate have said they 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.


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing