Carmakers ready robot cars as federal rules advance

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Automakers would each be allowed to sell thousands of self-driving cars under a bill advanced Wednesday by a panel in the U.S. Senate.

The approval came despite the objection of consumer safety groups who argued that car companies are presenting unrealistic promises about the readiness of the technology, although lawmakers reached compromises on some provisions intended to address their concerns — including a ban for now on selling self-driving trucks. Critics argue that the period when partially self-driving cars are put in traffic with cars driven by people is more dangerous than when cars are fully robotic.

The action came as several automakers roll out cars that already are capable of at least some hands-free driving.

The self-driving measure is one of the few pieces of bipartisan legislation that is moving in Washington this year. A similar measure was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

Supporters of the measure anticipate a vote of the full Senate will come before the end of the year. If it is approved then, backers will have to square their version with the earlier approved House bill, which allows fewer self-driving cars initially and places a 100,000 cap on them after three years. The Senate allows automakers each to start out selling up to 50,000 self-driving cars if companies can prove they meet existing safety standards for traditional cars, with a cap that goes up to more than 100,000 after five years.

The current limit for such exemptions to federal auto standards is 2,500 cars for two years at a time.

Lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee who back the proposed legislation that was approved by the panel said rapid technological advances in the auto industry demonstrate why it is important for the federal government to quickly craft rules. They cited the potential for self-driving cars to cut the number of deadly crashes that occur on U.S. roadways.

“This legislation will enable the future of transportation and mobility in our country,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who is a member of the Commerce Committee and a key sponsor of the legislation, known as the American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act.

“The proliferation of connected and highly automated transportation isn’t decades away,” Peters continued. “It’s just a few short years away. Some would say a few short quarters away before we see these vehicles on the road, and it’s going to have an enormous impact on our economy and our society.”

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and also a sponsor of the proposed self-driving legislation, added: “More than 35,000 people are killed in car crashes on our nation’s roads every year, and over 90 percent of crashes can be attributed to human error. Automated vehicles present an opportunity to make incredible gains in automobile safety.”

Consumer safety advocates say lawmakers are too focused on automakers’ promises about the potential for fully self-driving cars to improve safety on U.S. roads and increase mobility for people who are unable to drive themselves.

“There seems to be a rush to do what’s in the perceived interest of the automakers to get these vehicles out as quickly as possible,” John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog group, said. “That’s going to kill people.”

He pointed to a fatal accident last summer involving a Tesla sedan that collided with a semi-trailer that was undetected by the car’s Autopilot feature as evidence of the dangers of the period were some cars are semi-autonomous and others are not.

“When things get rolled out without with some kind of federally mandated safety regulations, there are always problems,” he said. “We’re going to have a period here with automakers racing to get all kinds of technology out there that I think are likely to be inadequately tested.”

The debate occurs against a backdrop of furious activity in the auto sector as automakers race to put cars that are capable of at least some hands-free driving on the road as quickly as they can.

General Motors Co. subsidiary Cadillac is rolling out its new Super Cruise technology that allows drivers to go hands-free for long stretches of highway driving on 2018 versions of its CT6 sedan. Volkswagen AG subsidiary Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist system, which allows for 15-second intervals of hands-off driving at slow speeds, is available on 2017 A4 and A7 sedans.

Audi is also planning to make its “Traffic Jam Pilot,” which allows travel hands-free up to 35 miles per hour, available on the 2018 Audi A8. It has prototypes for a “Highway Pilot” feature that can change lanes and pass cars independently, which Audi says will be available commercially by 2021.

The Senate measure would apply to vehicles in which there is a system that operates with the expectation that a human driver will take over when 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.

Self-driving trucks were dropped from the legislation after a high-profile campaign from labor unions to protect the jobs of professional drivers. The House version of the bill also excludes self-driving commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses.

Supporters of permitting self-driving trucks lamented the decision.

“This bill should include all motor vehicles,” U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said. “Treating cars and trucks different when it comes to federal preemption or the ability to test innovation or emerging technology will hinder efforts to develop and adopt newer and safety technology.”

Peters countered in an interview with The Detroit News after the hearing: “The idea of dealings with trucks is a complex issue and it should be addressed on its own.”

Both the Senate and House 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.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing