Senators drop trucks from self-driving bill

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate have dropped self-driving trucks from legislation from that would allow automakers to operate thousands of autonomous cars per year on U.S. roads. The action came after a high-profile campaign from labor unions to protect the jobs of professional drivers.

Daimler Trucks North America shows off a self-driving big rig atop the Hoover Dam in this file photo.

The measure, drafted with input from U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, would allow automakers each to operate more than 100,000 self-driving cars per year on U.S. roads. But commercial trucks are excluded under a bipartisan agreement that was reached between Peters and U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Both lawmakers touted the agreement to move forward on the self-driving bill without trucks as a necessary compromise to keep the autonomous vehicle legislation moving in Congress. They said the Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the revised legislation on Wednesday.

“This legislation proposes commonsense changes in law to keep pace with advances in self-driving technology,” Thune, who had argued in favor of including trucks in the self-driving bill, said in a statement.

Peters, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee who was opposed to including trucks in the legislation, added: “Self-driving vehicles will completely revolutionize the way we get around in the future, and it is vital that public policy keep pace with these rapidly developing lifesaving technologies that will be on our roads in a matter of years.”

Trucking groups expressed disappointment that they lost out in the fight over whether commercial vehicles should be included in the self-driving legislation. They had pressed lawmakers to offer the same protections for self-driving truck operators they are considering for autonomous cars.

“If more automated cars and trucks are to share the roads, they should also share the same framework,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said in a statement, arguing that lawmakers will still have to address the advent of self-driving trucks in the near future.

“Delaying an inevitable, commonsense solution will only make the issues surrounding more automated trucks more difficult to deal with,” Spear said.

Labor unions mounted an aggressive campaign against the inclusion of commercial vehicles like trucks in the self-driving legislation, pointing out that they could cost thousands of professional drivers their jobs. They applauded lawmakers in the Senate for agreeing to move forward without trucks in the self-driving legislation.

“This approach will give Congress more time to thoroughly examine how driverless technology will impact the jobs, wages, and safety of bus and truck drivers, and develop a plan to address these concerns,” said AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Larry Willis.

Automakers applauded lawmakers in the Senate for reaching an agreement to move the self-driving bill forward.

“Legislation like the bill introduced today will allow manufacturers to conduct more testing and to safely deploy self-driving vehicles to realize the safety, mobility, congestion, environmental, land-use and other benefits of this transformative technology,” General Motors Co. said in a statement.

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major auto manufacturers, added: “Chairman Thune’s and Senator Peters’ bipartisan leadership on the AV START Act will help advance self-driving technologies and help keep the United States at the forefront of these innovations.”

The Senate’s self-driving measure would allow the Secretary of Transportation to grant exemptions to federal motor vehicle rules that require cars to have human operators. Initially, 50,000 cars per automaker could be operated if companies can prove they meet existing safety standards for traditional cars. After a 12-month period, the number of exemptions per manufacturer would increase to 75,000, and it would go up to 100,000 in the third year.

Automakers would be able to apply for exemptions to operate more than 100,000 self-driving cars after five years under the proposed legislation. The current limit for such exemptions to federal auto standards is 2,500 cars for two years at a time.

A similar measure that would allow automakers each to operate up to 100,000 self-driving cars per year on U.S. roads was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month.

Both versions of the proposed legislation prohibit 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.

The new proposed exemptions would apply to vehicles in which there is a system that operates with the expectation that a human driver will take over upon being prompted. The legislation would also cover cars with high automation levels, where the automated driving can perform maneuvers even if a human driver does not take over when promoted – and for full automation, when the automated system is responsible for all driving tasks.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing