Bipartisan Driverless-Car Bill Hits Speed Bump in House

Democrats are skeptical of GOP moves to preempt strict state safety laws on autonomous vehicles, and say they weren’t consulted on the legislation.

The interior of a Tesla Model X 75D semiautonomous electric vehicle parked at the governor's mansion in Olympia, Wash., on Jan. 23.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
June 27, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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