Auto Industry Tells Congress to Pump Brakes On Self-Driving Car Regulation

A Waymo self-driving vehicle in Mountain View, California

A Waymo self-driving vehicle in Mountain View, California Shutterstock

 

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“If we set standards before we know what we’re creating, we could stifle innovation.”

Leaders from the auto industry on Wednesday praised legislation that would allow more widespread testing of self-driving cars but warned Congress against getting too involved in the growing marketplace.

As car manufacturers and tech companies race to get autonomous vehicles on the road, lawmakers are looking for a way to keep drivers safe when they’re no longer doing the driving.

At a hearing on the site of the Washington Auto Show, industry leaders told the Senate Commerce Committee it’s too soon to fully regulate self-driving cars, since they’re still being tested.

“Standards should be set based on data, and we don’t quite have the data yet,” said Tim Kentley-Klay, co-founder and chief executive officer of Zoox, an autonomous vehicle startup. “If we set standards before we know what we’re creating, we could stifle innovation.”

The American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act, introduced by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., would relax federal regulations on autonomous vehicles while calling on car companies to be more transparent about their safety standards. If passed, the bill will let manufacturers put more vehicles on the road, collect more data and work out the kinks in the system, said Audi Mobility U.S. President Luke Schneider.

The bill would also create a program to educate consumers on how self-driving cars work, which panelists said could help make people more comfortable with the sometimes unsettling new technology.

Despite the auto industry’s widespread support, the AV START Act remains stalled in the Senate. Four lawmakers, including Commerce Committee members Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have placed holds on the bill amid concerns about the safety and cybersecurity of self-driving cars.

During the hearing, Wicker said he’d like to see the bill include a “hot car provision,” which would prevent children and animals from being forgotten in overheating cars. Blumenthal said he worried people may be having “irrational exuberance” over the new tech.

Nobody wants to overregulate, but “sometimes standards are necessary, and enforcement of those standards are critically important to saving lives,” he said.

University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith told Nextgov he’s pleased to see the mandate for companies to release safety evaluation reports on their vehicles, but the bill doesn’t provide a complete regulatory framework for self-driving cars.

Ensuring the safety of self-driving cars will require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to adapt their existing safety standards for the new tech. However, he said that requires NHSTA to get a better understanding of how autonomous vehicles work, and the bill doesn’t provide any extra resources for them to do so.

He said the bill also includes provisions that could create conflicts between federal, state and local governments over who has final say over driver safety.

“Traditionally the federal government regulates motor vehicle design and states regulate non-commercial drivers and driving,” Smith said. “When you have the vehicle becoming the driver … this line is blurry.”

Jack Corrigan is an editorial fellow for Government Executive and Nextgov, where this article was originally published.

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