Anti-hacking protection emphasized in self-driving law draft

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — A draft of bipartisan legislation that would allow automakers to sell self-driving vehicles without steering wheels or brake pedals is circulating around lobbying groups in Washington. 

A "discussion draft" dated Feb. 11 that was obtained by The Detroit News contains language that would prohibit automakers from selling self-driving cars unless they develop, maintain, and execute "cybersecurity practices and processes to minimize cybersecurity risks to motor vehicle safety" within 180 days of enactment of the proposed legislation. 

Nuro's self-driving R2 got the green light from the federal government this month.

Carmakers would have to provide annual detailed descriptions of what manufacturers are doing to minimize hacking of systems. The reports would be considered privileged and confidential, according to the draft legislative language. 

The Transportation Secretary would also have to conduct research to determine the most effective ways to inform consumers about the capabilities and limitations automated vehicle technology.

Congress has struggled to update laws to allow more widespread deployment of autonomous fleets. And the Trump administration has resisted calls for mandatory regulations that force automakers to disclose testing data.

The U.S. House passed legislation in 2017 that would have allowed carmakers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving cars per year. A similar measure in the U.S. Senate that would have allowed each automaker to annually sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars died in 2018. 

The draft circulated this week does not stipulate the number of autonomous vehicles that automakers would be allow to sell. 

Previous versions of the self-driving legislation would have directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to update federal safety standards to ensure that autonomous vehicles match safety levels required for human-operated cars. It faced objections from trial lawyers who objected to a lack of concrete protections that would ensure the right to sue automakers if someone is hurt or killed in a self-driving vehicle. 

Liability questions are not addressed in the draft legislation language that was obtained by The News. 

During a hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, self-driving supporters urged Congress to push the pedal to the metal on legislation to clear the way for more widespread autonomous driving. 

"Automated vehicles aren’t just something we read about in science-fiction novels anymore. They’re here, transforming mobility and transportation as we know it," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn.

John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation auto-lobbying group, emphasized at the hearing the potential for autonomous vehicles to drastically reduce the number of deaths that occur annually on U.S. roadways. 

"Unlike conventional human drivers, AVs can’t get distracted, drive impaired or fall asleep at the wheel,” he said. 

The push to revive self-driving legislation comes after the federal government gave the green light to the first self-driving vehicle with no steering wheel, brake pedal — or human driver.

Nuro Inc., a robotics company based in Mountain View, Calif., was given permission this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to put up to 5,000 of its autonomous R2 electric delivery vehicles on the road over a two-year period. 

Julia Duncan, senior director of government affairs for the Washington-based American Association for Justice, which lobbies for trial lawyers, said the final version of the legislation will have to have clear rules that allow self-driving car crash victims to sue manufacturers before her organization can fully support it.  

Said Duncan: "The decision rests with industry about whether they will agree to preserve and protect the rights consumers currently have to seek accountability under the law."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing