Two senators announce effort to legislate on self-driving cars

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Two senators are teaming up to develop bipartisan legislation on self-driving vehicles that will “improve regulatory flexibility,” they announced Monday.

John Thune, R-S.D., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Gary Peters D-Mich., said they would “explore legislation that clears hurdles and advances innovation in self-driving vehicle technology.” Their goal is to produce a bill sometime this year.

Thune and Peters are interested in tackling the often-criticized “patchwork of laws and regulations” by federal and state governments on vehicle safety and deployment. “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,” the joint statement reads.

The two add: “Left on its own, the slow pace of regulation could become a significant obstacle to the development of new and safer vehicle technology in the United States.”

For now, the two big hubs for autonomous vehicle technology are Detroit and Silicon Valley. Late last year, Michigan began allowing the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads, and California also has approved several companies to do the same.

On the House side, Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection planned a hearing for Tuesday to tackle self-driving cars, where vice presidents from General Motors, Volvo Car Group, Toyota Research Institute and Lyft are set to testify.

During the Obama administration the Department of Transportation released in 2016 a federal policy outlining the relationship between state and federal oversight of driverless cars. Under that document, the federal government’s responsibility with driverless cars is mainly setting standards for vehicles and their equipment, including software, as well as managing recalls. States continue licensing human drivers, and enforcing traffic safety laws and regulations.

Some groups reacted positively to the policy at its introduction. Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, called the policy “a welcome approach to avoid patchwork laws.”

An official of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (created by Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber and Volvo Cars) said the Obama administration’s move was “an important step forward in establishing the basis of a national framework for the deployment of self-driving vehicles.”

This isn’t Congress’ first foray into smart transportation: The 2015 highway bill, for example, included an option for states to invest in vehicle-to-infrastructure technology. Peters played a role in that legislation, according to the announcement.

More recently a bill was signed into law that he co-sponsored along with Thune, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. and others to streamline science and technology research and development. To develop that bill Peters and Gardner hosted roundtables to discuss how best to improve law around research and development. From the joint statement it appears that Thune and Peters plan to take a similar collaborative approach to self-driving vehicle legislation.

“As we seek to identify areas where Congress should assist innovators in bringing this new technology to our roads, we will work closely with our colleagues, interested safety and mobility advocates, and other leaders in automated vehicle technology to find solutions that enable the safe testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles and assure public confidence,” their joint statement reads.

At the House hearing on Tuesday Mike Abelson, vice president of Global Strategy for General Motors, plans to testify that while it is important for regulatory work on the vehicles to continue, “it is imperative that manufacturers have the ability to test these vehicles in greater numbers to gather the safety data that will be critical to inform large-scale deployment of life-saving self-driving vehicles,” according to his released witness statement.

“One good way to accomplish this goal is to grant the Secretary of Transportation authority to grant specific exemptions for highly automated vehicle development,” Abelson plans to say.

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automated vehicles, autonomous vehicles, Congress, DOT, Sen. Gary Peters, Sen. John Thune
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