Senate Committee Approves Automated Vehicle Bill

Uber employees test a self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car, in Pittsburgh, during August 2016.

Uber employees test a self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car, in Pittsburgh, during August 2016. AP Photo/Jared Wickerham


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Not everyone is satisfied with the preemption language.

WASHINGTON —A U.S. Senate committee approved self-driving vehicle legislation Wednesday, moving Congress a step closer to coming up with a national framework for the emerging technology.

The bill still contains preemption provisions that at least one advocacy group says could leave states and localities in ambiguous legal terrain when enforcing traffic laws and other regulations.

But two senators who led the Commerce Committee effort to craft the legislation, John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who chairs the panel, and Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, suggested after the markup hearing for the bill that these concerns are misplaced.

Route Fifty asked Thune whether he thought lawmakers struck the right balance between providing the federal government authority to regulate automated vehicle technology, while also ensuring state and local jurisdictions can maintain their own rules of the road.

“I think we did,” he replied.

That said, discussions about preemption language remained unsettled in the hours leading up to the committee’s consideration of the bill.

“The preemption stuff was being negotiated into the middle of the night,” Thune said.

“We have a comfort level that the traditional, sort of, structure that existed with respect to federal and state—what issues they would regulate under the new framework—kind of stays in place," he added.

The Commerce Committee approved the bill, known as the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies, or AV START, Act by a voice vote.

The U.S. House last month passed similar legislation.

Thune did not offer a prediction for when the Senate bill might proceed to a floor vote, or if it might be attached to other legislation. “We’ll look for any opening and any legislative vehicle that might be out there that would give us an opportunity to advance it,” he said.

Regulating ‘Performance’

Transportation for America, a group that has taken a lead role scrutinizing preemption language in the bill, is bothered by wording that would restrict the ability of states and localities to impose laws and regulations involving the “performance” of the vehicles.

The group argues that this term is vague and that it could open the door for legal disagreements over things like whether state and local governments can require self-driving vehicles to recognize certain signs or infrastructure, or restrict the vehicles in school zones.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, proposed an amendment that would have stripped the word “performance” from a section of the bill that deals with preemption.

But the Commerce Committee did not adopt it.

Peters said there’s a well established understanding of what “performance” means in the context of auto regulations and that it does not have to do with state and local governments’ authority over how vehicles operate on their roadways.

"Performance has always been about the actual equipment in an automobile and that’s a federal role," he said.

Does Peters see a gray area due to the fact that software in self-driving vehicles is equipment and is also operating the vehicle?

"No," he said. "You can't have a patchwork of that equipment around in 50 states. It just simply would not work."

‘We Don’t Know What That Means’

Russ Brooks, director of smart cities with Transportation for America, said the group was caught somewhat off guard by an amendment Thune and Peters backed that replaced preemption language that had been aligned with what is in the House automated vehicle bill.

The amended language more closely resembles provisions in an earlier Senate “discussion draft,” which had led to confusion among some experts about how the bill would affect the ability of state and local governments to enforce traffic laws for automated vehicles.

With the amendment, the preemption language is linked—as it was in the discussion draft—to safety evaluation reports.

Under the legislation, vehicle makers would have to submit these reports to the federal government.

The amendment says states and local governments cannot adopt laws or regulations targeting the subjects covered by the reports.

One subject the bill now calls for the reports to include is “account for applicable laws.”

This covers “the account of applicable traffic laws and rules of the road, based on operational design domain, in the development of a highly automated vehicle or automated driving system.”

“We don’t know what that means,” Brooks said, referring to this part of the bill and how it relates to the preemption provisions. “This is really complicated stuff,” he added. “We totally get that, but let’s not rush it through before we fully understand what the implications are.”


Another notable issue for states and localities is how the data that is recorded and generated by self-driving vehicles will get shared by manufacturers and operators.

City officials and others have stressed that this data could be extremely valuable for public agencies in a variety of ways when planning and managing transportation systems.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, offered an amendment, which was included in the approved legislation, that would temporarily restrict federal agencies from imposing regulations pertaining to ownership, control, or access for data stored or generated by automated vehicles.

In the meantime, the amendment would establish a committee to make policy recommendations to Congress with respect to these data issues. The committee would include representatives from state and local governments and transit agencies, among others.

It would have up to two years after it is formed to come up with a formal set of recommendations for lawmakers.

Some information would also become available publicly through the safety evaluation reports manufacturers file. In addition to “account for applicable laws," the reports would focus on subjects like equipment failures, crashworthiness and cybersecurity.

Going into Wednesday’s markup hearing, the Senate bill called for the secretary of transportation to release these reports publicly “as soon as practicable.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, successfully proposed an amendment that would require the reports to be released no more than 60 days “after receipt.”

Truck Amendment Pulled

Inhofe withdrew an amendment that would have expanded the bill to cover trucks and other vehicles over 10,000 pounds. As it stands, the legislation only covers vehicles that are below that weight threshold.

“One thing I do pretty well is count votes and I’m not going to ask for a vote on this amendment,” Inhofe said.

Whether to include trucks in the bill has been a contentious question.

Trucking industry groups and truck manufacturers wanted to see the legislation include big rigs. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the nation’s largest labor union for truck drivers, did not, citing potential safety issues and threats to truck driving jobs.

Industry Influence?

Some safety and consumer advocates have suggested industry has had too much sway over the Senate legislation. Joan Claybrook, a previous administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, when then-President Jimmy Carter was in office, said Tuesday that auto and technology companies “basically wrote the bill.”

Peters disagreed with that characterization when asked about it.

“I would not say that at all,” he said. “We’ve had over 120 meetings with stakeholders all across the board.”

One group that has weighed in on automated vehicle policy in recent months is the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

The coalition counts Ford Motor Co., Lyft, Uber and Volvo Cars among its members. David Strickland acts as a lawyer and spokesperson for the group. He is also a partner with Venable LLP, a law firm that has lobbied on behalf of the coalition, according to disclosure documents.

Beginning in 2010 Strickland served about four years as the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During his tenure, the agency issued some of its first guidance on automated vehicles. Prior to NHTSA, Strickland spent about eight years on the Senate Commerce Committee staff as Democratic senior counsel, according Venable’s website.

The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets applauded the committee’s approval of the bill.

Strickland said in a statement that the Commerce Committee “took a critical step forward in the effort to save lives, improve public safety and increase mobility for the elderly, disabled and underserved.”

He added: “By supporting a national framework for autonomous cars, this pivotal legislation will help ensure that the United States leads the world in self-driving innovation.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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