The future of innovation: Congress stalls on self-driving cars

  • Federal legislation providing a regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles has been stalled in the Senate for the past year.
  • House lawmakers and industry leaders are urging the Senate to act on self-driving vehicles; they warn the U.S. risks falling behind to foreign competitors.
  • In the meantime, companies continue to look to states and cities to pave the way for the development and testing of self-driving technology.

Legislation on the table

Self-driving cars are coming to America’s roadways, and industry leaders say it’s time for government at all levels to buckle up for the ride.

“Today, it is no longer a question of whether cars will drive themselves, but rather when this will happen at scale,” wrote Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive and director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities, in a recent op-ed for U.S. News & World Report. “Before long, autonomous vehicles will be ubiquitous on our roadways, but the full story has not yet been written.”

“It starts with understanding that the world is going to go self-driving and autonomous,” Travis Kalanick, then-CEO of Uber, told Business Insider in a 2016 interview. “So if that’s happening, what would happen if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing?”

Kalanick’s questions were rhetorically directed at Uber to explain why the company is investing heavily in self-driving technology, but they are equally applicable to the federal government, which has yet to enact into law legislation governing autonomous vehicles (AV) at the national level.

Presently there are two bills in Congress — one in the House and one in the Senate — that would preempt state laws with a national framework of regulations for the development and use of AVs.

Passed by unanimous voice vote in 2017, the House’s SELF DRIVE Act has four significant components. First, it addresses privacy directly by requiring makers of highly automated vehicles to give consumers notice of how it gathers and uses their data. Second, it preempts state laws regarding vehicle design, construction and performance (while preserving state laws in traditional areas like vehicle registration and licensing). Third, it establishes new timelines for the Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create rules and standards for AVs, namely, safety assessment certifications. And lastly, it continues allowing exemptions for AVs from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that apply to cars with drivers, provided there is no reduction in safety.

Rather than running with the House bill, the Senate pushed aside the SELF DRIVE Act shortly after it passed the House in favor of its own bipartisan bill, the AV START Act. According to a press release from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the bill “proposes common sense changes in law to keep pace with advances in self-driving technology,” including enhanced safety oversight, reduced barriers to deployment, strengthened cybersecurity, improved vehicle data sharing, and modernized Department of Transportation safety standards.

Despite being introduced more than a year ago, the AV START Act has yet to be advanced to the chamber floor, in large part due to concerns about implementation and safety raised by Senate Democrats.

The Department of Transportation, for its part, has released multiple iterations of guidelines for self-driving vehicles in recent years, but these merely reflect the input of various stakeholders and are voluntary.

Advocates for AV legislation

Both bills enjoy bipartisan support and have seen significant lobbying by industry leaders and groups. Top lobbyists seeking to influence both the House and Senate bills include Uber Technologies; Intel Corp; the US Chamber of Commerce; Google parent company Alphabet; prominent auto manufacturers including Hyundai, Honda, Tesla; and a number of insurance companies and related trade associations such as Allstate, Liberty Mutual, and Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Advocates for both bills almost unanimously point to the need for nationwide AV regulations, rather than deferring to a patchwork of local and state rules. Currently 29 states have passed some kind of regulation for self-driving vehicles, and every year, the number of states considering AV legislation grows.

Most of the pressure to act currently falls on the Senate. Earlier this year, one year after passing the SELF DRIVE Act, House Republicans from the Energy & Commerce Committee gathered to call for the Senate to address AV legislation. They said a patchwork of state laws is insufficient and warned that if their chambers’ respective pieces of legislation cannot be reconciled, the U.S. risks falling behind to international competitors like China, Singapore, and Germany.

“A car can’t just shut down at a state line, for instance when it leaves Illinois and enters into Indiana, so we need a federal framework to prevent that from happening,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-IL, said.

Industry leaders and advocates are making similar appeals for a federal framework to be put in place.

“You should be able to buy (an AV) car in California and drive it to New York,” Greg Rogers, a director at Securing America’s Future Energy, told Axios, adding that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is best equipped to do this.

“What is still lacking is a strong federal framework that supports the near and long-term development and safe deployment of autonomous vehicles,” Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford’s autonomous vehicles arm, wrote in a letter to Senators urging them to take up and pass legislation.

“While this legislation isn’t perfect, it has the potential to help save lives on America’s roads and keep our country a technological trailblazer,” the grassroots advocacy group Americans for Prosperity said in a blog post, echoing warnings from lawmakers like Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, that the United States will “fall dangerously behind in autonomous vehicle standards and policies while China and Europe leap ahead.”

There appears to be validity to these claims. As Ars Technica reporter Timothy Lee has pointed out, decades-old safety rules requiring every car to have a steering wheel and pedals have forced car and technology companies to lobby Congress for an expedited process to allow tens of thousands of self-driving vehicles on the road, such as the General Motors Cruise AV, which is designed to have no steering wheel and no gas or brake pedals. GM said it plans to introduce a commercial taxi service using its self-driving Cruise AV by the end of 2019, but without a rewrite of federal regulations, this is not a scalable process.

“If the Senate doesn’t pass the AV START Act soon, large-scale manufacturing of vehicles like the Cruise AV could be pushed well into the next decade,” Lee concluded.

AV’s state and local path

In the meantime, Axios reports, companies are shopping for testbeds among the states. These more localized efforts will decide which Americans get to ride in a self-driving car first — and which cities will both reap the economic benefits of self-driving vehicles as well as confront potential problems.

“It’s foolish for a city to try to push back a technology, because guess what? The technology’s going to happen anyways,” said Bryan Mistele, co-chair of the ACES Northwest Network, an organization focused on developing and promoting AV technology. He added that this need not put stress on local governments budgets because there’s plenty of private capital already invested in the development of AVs. All that’s needed, Mistele said, is their permission and cooperation.

Plenty of cities have heeded Mistele’s advice and are allowing companies to develop and test AVs. This has led many industry leaders and AV advocates to focus primarily at the state and local level while waiting to see what trajectory Congress will take in passing a nationwide regulatory framework.

“With regard to the SELF DRIVE Act in the House or the AV START bill in the Senate, we have not focused on them, primarily because we were waiting to see how AV regulation would transition from Obama to Trump,” said Bruce Agnew, Director of the ACES Northwest Network, in an email to Grassroots Pulse.

If and when Congress does get around to enacting a federal framework, Agnew said his group will generally seek uniform standards among the 50 states with an emphasis on personal safety and a removal of obsolete barriers to innovation. He added that ACES Northwest is planning to launch a public education effort in the first quarter of 2019 to bring together Congressional and state leaders along with legal and insurance leaders in the region to sort out the nexus of state and federal jurisdictions.

Lingering concerns about safety and viability

While the AV industry has gone from zero to thousands of cars on the road just in the past decade, putting mass implementation within sight, the fact remains that “humans are still a lot smarter than even the smartest cars — and are still babysitting them every step of the way,” wrote Alison Snyder in a recent Axios Autonomous Vehicles newsletter. “Although human error accounts for many accidents on the road today, people are generally good at managing the demands of driving.”

These demands include a virtually-infinite range of situations that can arise while driving, which has led some skeptics to argue that full autonomy is father away than the industry suggests.

“Driverless cars are like a scientific experiment where we don’t know the answer,” Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University, told The Verge. Marcus is concerned that driving well in accident-prone scenarios may be a more complicated task for artificial intelligence than the AV industry wants to admit. “To the extent that surprising new things happen,” he added, “it’s not a good thing for deep learning.”

Critics of the current bills in Congress say that pushing the large-scale use of AVs back another decade wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, because slow and deliberate rulemaking is necessary to protect public safety. In the meantime, they say, companies have plenty of avenues to test driverless car technology.

For instance, David Friedman, former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, argued in an article for Axios that consumers deserve strong protections that are missing from the bills before Congress, such as minimum performance standards, strong privacy rules, accessibility and safety for disability communities, public information about autonomous vehicles, and state and local authority to provide limitations until federal rules are in place.

“Federal law already allows extensive testing on public roads,” he wrote. “Instead of rushing forward to undermine current rules, Congress should increase NHTSA’s budget and direct them to put strong regulations in place.”

Underscoring Friedman’s argument is a lingering lack of public trust in AVs. Last month an Axios/Survey Monkey poll found that around two thirds of Americans still feel unsafe around self-driving cars.

Whether Congress acts tomorrow or years from now, however, it will be taking significant risks. Mistele claims that AVs are three times safer on a per-mile basis than human drivers, and AV advocates warn that slowing the introduction of driverless cars could actually prove costly.

“Errors by human drivers lead to crashes that kill tens of thousands of Americans every year,” wrote Lee. “Driverless cars may be able to prevent many of those deaths. So slowing progress on driverless car technology — even by a year or two — could cost thousands of lives.”

Image Credit: “Shelley the Autonomous (Self-Driving) Car” by Joseph Thornton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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