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Washington — With Congress returning to Washington on Tuesday for a flurry of legislative activity before the end of the year, transportation advocates are hoping to win support for pair of measures that would allow carmakers to sell thousands of self-driving cars and extend tax credits for electric vehicles. 

Supporters of a U.S. Senate bill championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, that would allow automakers to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars each per year are hoping to finally pass the measure in the upcoming so-called lame duck session after a year-long wait. They note that the current Republican-led House passed a similar measure with relative ease in 2017.  

Additionally, General Motors Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Tesla Inc. have joined forces with environmental groups to form a new coalition that is pushing to remove a cap on a federal tax credit that provides up to $7,500 to buyers of electric cars. GM, Nissan and Tesla, makers of the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla's electric-fleet, are among the biggest electric car producers in the U.S. Current rules allow automakers to offer credits for up to 200,000 electric vehicles per manufacturer.

Republican senators may be more likely to compromise with their Democratic colleagues on the self-driving legislation instead of waiting to have to negotiate a new deal with the House after Democrats take control of that chamber in January.

A spokeswoman for Peters said he "continues to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle" to get the bill signed into law before the end of the year, noting that major companies have already begun testing autonomous vehicles at several sites around the U.S., including at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township. 

"As companies move forward with their self-driving vehicle plans, Sen. Peters is focused on ensuring there is a federal regulatory framework in place to oversee the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles," Peters' office said.

But critics of the bill argue that not enough attention is being paid to safety concerns, and that there isn't enough oversight on the road-readiness of the technology.

The picture is slightly more complicated for supporters of lifting the cap on electric car tax credits. A measure by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., would eliminate the tax credit for electric cars and institute a new tax on electric cars and alternative fuel vehicles to boost the coffers of the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for construction projects.

A separate measure by U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., would keep the electric vehicle tax credit in place and lift the cap. A similar measure was also introduced by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. 

Heller lost his seat in last week's election to Democratic U.S. Rep. Jackie Rosen, who has also co-sponsored legislation in the House to extend the electric car tax credit for 10 years. Nevada is home to Tesla's Gigafactory 1 lithium-ion battery factory. 

When carmakers hit the 200,000-vehicle ceiling, they face a phasing-out process of the $7,500 tax credit offered to buyers of full-electric vehicles — reducing that credit by half every six months. At least one automaker, Tesla, has already hit the limit, and GM is also expected to hit the mark during the fourth quarter of 2018.

GM sold 23,297 all-electric Chevrolet Bolts and 20,349 plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volts in the U.S. in 2017. 

Dan Turton, vice president of public policy at GM, said in announcing a new group known as the EV Drive Coalition that includes GM, Nissan and Tesla: “A federal tax credit to help make electric vehicles more affordable for all consumers is integral to reaching a zero-emissions future and establishing the U.S. as the leader in electrification. We feel that the tax credit should be modified so all customers continue to receive the full benefit going forward.”

Advocates for the self-driving bill are hoping for favorable action. Scott Hall, director of communications and public affairs of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for major U.S. and foreign-owned automakers, said automakers "remain optimistic the Senate will take action on this bipartisan legislation, given the tremendous promise of this technology to make our roadways safer and provide greater mobility options to persons with disabilities and seniors." 

But critics of the self-driving bill are on high alert.

John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group, which has raised concerns about the safety of self-driving cars after recent high-profile crashes, said he is "concerned there will be a mad rush to try to slam it through" now that the contentious election season has passed. 

"It's simply insanity to rush through a bad bill just to say you've got a bill," Simpson said, adding that Congress has done little to address concerns that have been raised by safety groups about giving automakers wide latitude to sell self-driving cars.

Groups that represent trial lawyers have complained about a lack of protections that would ensure the right to sue if someone is hurt or killed in a self-driving car.

Peter Knudsen, director of communications for the Washington, D.C-based American Association for Justice, which lobbies for trial lawyers who typically represent plaintiffs, added that his group is also still "strongly opposed" to the Senate's self-driving bill. 

"We remain hopeful that proponents of AV START will adopt the vital changes necessary to ensure that the bill brings transparency and accountability to the driverless car industry,” Knudsen said. 

The arguments appear to have held sway with some U.S. senators thus far. At least five have publicly expressed concerns about the measure, pointing to accidents this year that involved Uber and Tesla vehicles that were operating autonomously or semi-autonomously. The opposition prevented the self-driving bill from being quickly passed in the notoriously deliberate upper chamber.

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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