Autonomous Vehicle Bills Stuck in Park Until 2018

December 21, 2017

The automated vehicle (AV) legislation in Congress has been put in park until next year, despite being in the fast lane for the past several months. Confronted with limited floor time and a number of concerns raised during Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) attempt to hotline the bill, AV START (S. 1885) was unable to make it to the Senate floor before the holiday recess.

At first, it appeared that the House and Senate would – relatively speaking – breeze through their AV bills, thanks to wide bipartisan support for the emerging technology.

And, to some extent, they did – but in a Senate that only seems ableto pass legislation either through unanimous consent or the cumbersome cloture process, sometimes bipartisanship can only get so far.

The House bill, H.R. 3388, the SELF DRIVE Act, zoomed through the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, the Energy & Commerce Committee, and then the House floor with unanimous support every step of the way – even overcoming some partisan tensions.

On the other side of the Hill, even the world’s greatest deliberative body seemed to have some momentum behind it after the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee passed it unanimously.

But AV START met a very different reality when Thune, who is the chair of Senate Commerce and wrote the bill with Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), initiated the hotline process last month. One Republican and multiple Democrats placed holds – and some Democrats were especially vocal about their opposition.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) reportedly said last week that she was “strongly opposed” to AV START. “I do not want untested autonomous vehicles on the freeways which are complicated, move fast and are loaded with huge trucks,” she told Bloomberg Government.

Sen. Markey has pushed for stronger language around auto defect investigations, cybersecurity, and consumer privacy. Among the items on his wish list prior to the markup is the inclusion of his SPY CAR Act (S. 680), which would instruct NHTSA to set restrictive cybersecurity standards – a proposal that, some experts suggest, could be counterproductive.

As ETW first reported, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) originally placed a hold due to his concerns that the bill could preempt the franchise laws for auto dealerships (which are set at the state level). However, sources indicate that Wicker’s concerns have been addressed and that he seems to have rescinded his hold.

(Ed. note: See this recent article for a longer explanation of auto dealers’ concerns.)

But competition for floor time has been fierce thanks to the Republican tax reform initiative, a seemingly constant fire drill to keep the federal government funded, and a $81.2 billion disaster relief bill – all of which took precedent over considering a bill about robot cars on the floor.

And throwing AV START on any of those end-of-year Christmas trees could threaten the increasingly fragile bipartisan support for AV legislation– something that has been a point of pride in both chambers.

So, in the meantime, Senate and House staff are getting a head start with informal “preconference” hearings to begin discussing their respective bills and hammering out early agreements. But even this could be futile if AV START is amended on its way out of the Senate.

Which is all to say that, despite being perhaps the most bipartisan and at times fastest-moving pieces of legislation this year, AV START and SELF DRIVE are parked until at least the first quarter of 2018.

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