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February 15 2017

Congress Opens the Door to Self-Driving Cars

Patrice L. Onwuka

Self-driving cars are drawing much buzz on Capitol Hill this week and the message this Congress is sending spells good news for the rapidly developing world of autonomous cars.

In a subcommittee hearing yesterday, Republican leaders announced that the House of Representatives plans to pass several bills in 2017 focused on self-driving cars. They also plan to collaborate with their Senate colleagues, who have bipartisan legislation going on a similar track as well.

At the hearing, the panel reportedly discussed state laws for driverless cars, cybersecurity risks, and the life-saving potential of driverless technology. In the past, Congress had considered self-driving cars in the abstract,  but with tests underway in a handful of states, Congress is racing to get up to speed on  how public policy can strike the balance of allowing for innovation while ensuring safety.

Morning Consult reports:

“Throughout the year, the committee will work with our colleagues in the Senate, industry leaders, and safety advocates to advance a number of bills that will prioritize safety and build consumer confidence in self-driving cars,” Rep. Bob Latta, head of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection, said in an emailed statement to Morning Consult following a panel hearing on the deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Anders Karrberg, vice president of government affairs at Volvo Car Group who testified at today’s hearing, told the subcommittee “the patchwork of state regulations is a concern” for the rollout of driverless cars in the United States.

Across the Capitol, the Senate is also getting busy on self-driving cars. In advance of the hearing, two senators announced they’re working together on a bipartisan plan to develop regulatory flexibility for the auto industry to create self-driving vehicles. In a joint statement, Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan and Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota pushed Congress to rewrite policies that maintain safety, but allow room for self-driving technology to reach its “full potential.”

The Detroit Free Press captured their statement:

“More than any other automotive technology in history, self-driving vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce the more than 35,000 lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around” …

“Many current federal vehicle safety standards reference placement of driver controls and other systems that assume a human operator. While these requirements make sense in today’s conventional vehicles, they could inhibit innovation or create hazards for self-driving vehicles,” they said. “Left on its own, the slow pace of regulation could become a significant obstacle to the development of new and safer vehicle technology.”

There is no overarching federal policy governing self-diving cars, although the Transportation Department released voluntary guidelines last year. States are starting to develop their own rules. Whether there should be federal policy versus allowing for a patchwork of regulations is a good debate to have. Driverless cars may require a balanced approach.

One challenge though is ensuring that regulations currently governing automobiles don’t become a roadblock for autonomous vehicles. Automakers pressed Congress to relax rules that currently apply to human-operated vehicles, but don’t make sense for self-driving cars.

For example, under current standards cars must have a wheel and floor pedals, but those aren’t needed in self-driving cars. Carmakers can apply for an exemption from that standard, but federal officials can only grant 2,500 per year, which could be reached quickly as companies seek to test and develop the vehicles. Automakers and tech companies made those arguments at yesterday’s hearing.

The signals are clear. Self-driving cars appear inevitable. The question that remains is whether Washington and state capitol will be a partner to innovation or stand in the way of it.

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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