The US Senate Commerce Committee has unanimously approved a bill that would prevent states from creating laws that regulate development and performance of self-driving cars and help put more autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Within three years, the bill would allow auto manufacturers to sell 80,000 autonomous vehicles annually as long as they are demonstrably as safe as regular cars. Before then, automakers can sell 15,000 self-driving cars the first year, and 40,000 cars the second year. The initial bill put the three-year cap at 100,000 cars, but the number was revised to 80,000 after negotiations.
Currently there is no national law permitting driverless cars on roads, and some companies that are experimenting with self-driving cars are operating in legal gray zones.
Under the legislation, states could still regulate matters like registration, safety inspections, and insurance—but regulation of performance standards would fall entirely under the control of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“If it wasn’t before, NHTSA is now the center of the self-driving car world,” Ed Walters, adjunct professor of robotics law at Georgetown University, told Gizmodo. “It’s important to have uniform national safety standards, so that carmakers don’t have to create 51 different models for the safety standards of each state. But this is a very aggressive move from state authority to federal.”
Walters believes this legislation would put tremendous pressure on the NHTSA to create standards as autonomous vehicles are being developed. “This is building the airplane while you’re flying it, and the stakes couldn’t be higher,” he said, suggesting that the agency will have to make quick decisions about issues like how autonomous cars signal other drivers, whether to require vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems, and how roads and other infrastructure will communicate with cars.
Now the bill will go on to the rest of the Senate. Last month, the US House unanimously passed their version of the bill. The speediness of this legislation is a testament to the support for deregulation of autonomous-vehicle development. “For it to pass the House unanimously and pass the Senate within a couple of weeks is light speed for Congress,” Walters said. “It’s like watching your grandfather run a four-minute mile.”
Google’s parent company Alphabet, Ford Motors, and General Motors are some of the companies lobbying for this legislation.
Auto safety advocates spoke out against the measure this week. During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Joan Claybrook said, “The public will be the crash-test dummy for this dangerous experiment.” Jason Levine, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, criticized the “absence of corporate caution in the rush to be first to get self-driving cars on the road.”
The Trump administration has already shown its support for the driverless car development. Last month, US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao revealed new voluntary guidelines for testing and developing self-driving cars. The rules are more lax than the self-driving car guidelines the Obama administration issued last year, which urged developers to adhere to an also voluntary 15-point checklist of safety expectation. Last November, many automakers called upon Trump to reevaluate Obama-era self-driving car guidelines and regulations.