Self-driving bill faces unclear path in Senate
Washington — A bill championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters that would allow automakers to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars each per year faces an uncertain path after a pair of high-profile crashes involving self-driving cars in Arizona and California have emboldened critics of the technology.
The crashes, involving Uber and Tesla vehicles that were operating autonomously, occurred as senators who support the self-driving bill are struggling to win support from reluctant colleagues who already had expressed concerns before the latest accidents.
Safety advocates have urged lawmakers to pump the brakes on the measure, but Peters and other supporters say they are still trying to put the bill on President Donald Trump’s desk this year.
A similar measure has been passed by the U.S. House. Senate backers have been hoping to win unanimous consent for their version of the self-driving bill, but at least five senators have publicly expressed concerns about the measure.
“As we understand it, the primary objective of the AV START Act is to establish an interim framework for the deployment of self-driving technology before it is mature enough to enable specific new federal safety standards,” wrote U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., in a March 14 letter to the chief backers of the self-driving bill.
“We respect the need for this approach, but ask that the framework support rapid progress toward appropriate safety standards. We are concerned that the bill indefinitely pre-empts state and local safety regulations even if federal safety standards are never developed. Placing a sunset on this interim pre-emption provision would encourage collaboration with federal regulators and maintain a firm timetable for new safety standards, which will have their own preemptive effect.”
Since then, high-profile crashes have scrambled the political calculus behind the Senate self-driving bill. Complicating matters were a fatality in an Uber crash in Arizona and a Tesla crash in the home state of Feinstein, who has been one of the most vocal critics. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board have launched investigations into both crashes.
The proposed measure would direct the U.S. Department of Transportation to produce a report on provisions in federal motor vehicle safety standards that need to be updated to allow self-driving cars to perform tasks that are currently required of human operators and create a technical safety committee for highly automated cars. The secretary of Transportation would be required to accept comments on a proposed rule for self-driving cars and decide within one year on those standards.
Automakers will be required to submit a safety evaluation of their self-driving cars within 90 days of the proposed measure’s enactment.
The measure would 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.
Peters’ office said the Bloomfield Township Democrat and U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is the primary Republican supporter of the self-driving bill, are still attempting to win support from reluctant senators. The bipartisan duo also is looking at the possibility of trying to attach the measure to another bill that has better prospects for a full vote or passing it as a standalone bill. The latter could require as much as a week’s worth of floor time in a year when campaign season will be ramping up soon.
John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group, said senators should continue to hold up the self-driving bill until the regulators release their findings of the causes of both crashes.
“Last I knew, there were five senators who had placed a hold on the AV Start bill because they are trying to get more things added to the bill,” he said. “We have called for an overall moratorium on any on-road, public road testing until that NTSB report is completed on the Uber crash, but people are still testing. Last I knew, Uber had suspended, but I don’t know when they are going to resume again or if they are going to resume again.”
Uber announced in a March 26 tweet that it “proactively suspended self-driving operations in all cities immediately following the tragic incident” that took place in Arizona. “We continue to help investigators in any way we can, and we'll keep a dialogue open with the Governor's office to address any concerns they have,” the company wrote.
Simpson said Feinstein and the other Democratic senators who have raised concerns about the self-driving measure are “doing absolutely the right thing saying ‘wait a minute, slow down here, we’ve got to get this right.”
Simpson said he hopes other senators in both parties will join them in urging caution. “My sense is that there are more questions being raised, appropriately so, by some of the senators who may have been ardent supporters and were saying let’s rush this stuff on to the road,” he said.
A group of more than 100 self-driving supporters, including General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles LLC US, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and other automakers, have urged the Senate to pass the self-driving bill before Memorial Day.
“The AV START Act represents an historic opportunity for Congress to establish a technology neutral regulatory framework to advance these groundbreaking technologies while supporting research and investment in the United States,” the groups wrote. “Due to these benefits, we believe this legislation will garner overwhelming bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate.”
Simpson said the time for legislative action on the self-driving bill might be running short with the busy congressional calendar and campaign season around the corner.
“It’s hard for me to predict what’s going to happen in the Senate right now,” he said. “The bill that was there was not a good bill. One of the things it would do is preempt any state regulations before anything is even put in at the federal level, which is nuts. I think we’re getting to the point where nothing is going to move.”