A long-awaited bipartisan bill to boost the burgeoning driverless-car industry is facing a series of speed bumps in the House, delaying and perhaps even stalling a rapid push by lawmakers to regulate autonomous vehicles.
After years of relative inaction, both chambers of Congress cited the imminent wide-scale introduction of driverless-car technology when announcing new plans this month to regulate the industry. But while the Senate Commerce Committee chose to issue only a broad set of principles outlining its plans, the House released a 14-bill package that would strip states of their authority to regulate driverless cars and dramatically increase exemptions from federal safety standards for companies testing and deploying the technology.
During a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Republicans argued that the move to preempt state safety regimes would hasten the development and deployment of driverless cars, ultimately saving thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost through human error. Industry representatives on the panel—all of whom expressed frustration at the “patchwork” of state and local safety regulations on driverless cars—agreed wholeheartedly with that characterization, arguing that shifting regulations state-to-state made it difficult to test or do business across state borders.
But Democrats on the committee said they were never seriously consulted by the majority before the suite of bills was unveiled. And they fretted over plans to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration jurisdiction over the industry. The lawmakers argued that the voluntary safety framework developed by NHTSA last year is an inadequate replacement for painstakingly developed rules implemented by the states. They also said the agency is too underfunded to police an industry on the cusp of major changes.
“We all share the same goal: safely getting this life-saving technology on the road,” said Rep. Doris Matsui of California. “That’s why I’m disappointed with the process so far on today’s legislation. … California has been a leader in envisioning a pathway for the safe testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles. If we are going to contemplate undoing this process, we ought to be focused on giving NHTSA the tools to fill the void.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, the ranking member of the full committee, echoed that criticism. “While the bills before us deal with a number of industry requests … there are no directions to NHTSA,” Pallone said in an opening statement. “NHTSA must have an active role for self-driving cars to be successfully deployed on our roads.”
“The Republican draft proposes preemption [of state rules] without any requirement for a federal standard,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the ranking member of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. “I believe we need a framework for updating federal standards if we are to even have that conversation about preemption—which I’m very skeptical about.” Schakowsky said she was troubled that no official from NHTSA had been called to testify and that she would “need to see additions and changes to the bill before I can give my support.”
Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta of Ohio appears eager to earn that support, and soon. Speaking with reporters after the hearing alongside Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan—one of the few unvarnished Democratic supporters of the bills—Latta said he hopes to move the package out of committee by the “end of July.” But both he and Dingell acknowledged that they had some way to go to convince the rest of the panel’s Democratic members.
“We’re talking about it, trying to figure it out,” said Latta, adding that the bills were merely working drafts and had not yet been officially introduced. That echoed comments made by Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden, who used the phrase “staff-discussion drafts” to describe the bills. “This isn’t the end; this is the beginning,” Walden said during the hearing.
In order to draw Democratic support, any final bill will likely require a direction that NHTSA create a mandatory safety framework for the deployment of driverless cars on American roads. Both Latta and Dingell expressed resistance to that idea, arguing that the technology is moving too quickly and that one federal safety standard would hinder innovation.
Caleb Watney, a tech-policy associate at the libertarian R Street Institute, agreed that an overzealous NHTSA would stifle new driverless-vehicle models. But he said the agency could implement “broad-based performance standards” that governed the safety of autonomous cars without mandating the use of specific technologies.
“I think there’s ways that NHTSA could say, ‘So long as you can prove that you are safer than the average human driver, we’re going to allow you onto the roads,’” Watney said.
Though Latta repeatedly expressed to reporters a willingness to compromise, it’s not clear whether a beefed-up NHTSA role will make it into the final bill. William Wallace, a policy analyst at Consumers Union who advocated tougher NHTSA standards before the subcommittee, said his group has heard little from House Republicans on the issue. “We’ve heard more from members on the Senate side that are interested in rule-making as a part of the bill,” Wallace told National Journal after the panel.
Dingell, for her part, said she didn’t think it was “fair” to call the preemption issue a sticking point for House Democrats.
“I think that they have raised issues about how they’re going to make sure that the safety issue is concerned in there, and have talked about how we address it,” she told reporters. “But you all are approaching this as if they’re not going to come on board. They’re asking questions, raising their issues. But every person that spoke today talked about wanting to work together and get this figured out.”
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