Self-driving bill hits dead end in U.S. Senate
Washington — A bill championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters that would allow automakers to annually sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars each appears to be dead for the year as Congress is debating passing a “clean” bill to extend federal funding until February 2019.
The extension is uncertain at the moment as President Donald Trump and some Republicans in the U.S. House have balked at the fact that it does not include $5 billion for a wall on the U.S-Mexico border. The measure, which does not include anything about self-driving cars, has already been passed the U.S. Senate.
The funding bill is likely to the last piece of legislation that will be approved before Congress adjourns for the year. That means the self-driving bill would have to be reintroduced when lawmakers reconvene in January. Peters and other backers of the self-driving measure are promising to try again to attach the self-driving bill to the next must-pass funding legislation that will have to approved by the new Congress before Feb. 8.
The politics are likely to be different because Democrats will be in control of the U.S. House when Congress returns to Washington in 2019. Additionally, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who worked with Peters on the self-driving bill, is being replaced as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in 2019 by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. Thune is leaving the post to become Republican Party's Senate whip in the next Congress.
Safety advocates say lawmakers should rip up their proposed self-driving bill and start over with a more stringent measure next year.
Peters promised Wednesday to keep working to pass the measure in the next Congress.
"I'm sure we'll be introducing something in the beginning of the year," he said. "We're going to rest what we want to do. The key is this issue is not going away. Our foreign competitors are working furiously to dominate this area nad we need to work to make sure we keep good paying jobs in the the U.S.
Peters said he and other Senate supporters of self-driving bill are "looking for other vehicles," citing the spending bill that Congress have to approve when the latest short-term funding measure runs out early next year.
"We have an omnibus bill coming up in February, so there's some hope there," Peters said. "My experience here is when there's a deadline, that's the biggest motivator."
Peters lamented the fact that failure to pass the self-driving bill means autonomous vehicle testing will continue to unregulated, which he said could cause problems for self-driving supporters if there is a high-profile accident.
"Companies currently can do limited testing," he said. "It's completely unregulated, so you have unregulated testing on our roads. There's no question there will be consumer pushback if there is an accident."
The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for major automakers, agreed, saying in a statement: "Inaction by Congress is a setback for the development and ultimate deployment of potentially life-saving technologies, and leaves many unanswered questions on how this technology will be regulated.
"Federal legislation is needed to provide greater oversight of automated vehicle technologies and help avoid an unworkable patchwork of conflicting state laws and regulations," the group said. "A lack of national leadership could delay the rollout of promising safety innovations and cause uncertainty when it comes to critical investments, threatening American competitiveness."
John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group, cheering lawmakers' decision to push the brakes on the self-driving bill, saying "the AV START Act was terrible bill that gave too much to robot car makers and failed to provide meaningful safety standards.
"Autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it can be safely deployed. Congress should start over and get any legislation right," he said. “When you and I got a driver’s license, we took a test that included a vision test. Robot cars should be required to pass the same kind of test."
The Republican-controlled House passed a bill that would allow carmakers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving cars each per year in 2017. The measure would have allowed automakers to request thousands of exemptions to federal motor vehicle safety standards that currently require cars to have a human operator.
Peters attributed the intense pushback in the Senate to the quick passage in the House.
"Once the House passed it unanimously, it came to the Senate," he said. "A lot of folks realized the bill was moving and they thought 'I better get involved,' so they brought their concerns to us."
A central roadblock for the self-driving bill came in the form of staunch opposition from the Washington, D.C-based American Association for Justice, which lobbies for trial lawyers who typically represent plaintiffs. Trial lawyers, who typically align with Democrats, objected to a lack of concrete protections that would ensure the right to sue if someone is hurt or killed in a self-driving car.
“In the new year AAJ will continue to work with Congressional leaders and with industry to ensure any driverless car legislation prioritizes public safety and protects the constitutional rights of drivers, passengers and pedestrians,” said Peter Knudsen, director of communications for the American Association for Justice.
Peters expressed confidence that Congress will eventually approve the self-driving measure.
"We still have a ways to go on the AV Start Act," he said. "I'm confident we'll do it, I just don't know when."