House, Senate Leaders Finalizing Automated Vehicle Bills

June 9, 2017

After several hearings on automated vehicles (AVs) this year alone, Congressional leaders are preparing to introduce legislation meant to accelerate the safe development of the nascent technology.

After riding in a semi-autonomous Audi on Tuesday, Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and House Energy & Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) informed Reuters that they were nearing completion of their chambers’ respective AV bills.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee (E&C) has already held a handful of hearings to review the current state of AVs, understand the industry-accepted levels of automation as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), and explore the possibilities for AVs to enhance mobility in the future.

Over the past few months, E&C has been circulating a package of 16 proposed bills among lawmakers and automakers to solicit feedback. The bills will likely be introduced before Congress leaves for on August recess.

(Ed. note: ETW recently obtained a copy of this summary – subscribers can access our analysis of all 16 bills here.)

“We’re getting very close. I think it’s a good package. We’ve put a lot of work into it,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) told Reuters on Tuesday.

As a starting point, both the House and Senate are considering an expansion of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) authority to grant exemptions to the federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS). In select cases, NHTSA can currently grant exemptions for up to 2,500 vehicles to entities that are testing or deploying a small number of vehicles on public roads.  As ETW first reported in April, lawmakers in both chambers are considering increasing this cap to be as high as 100,000.

In addition, the House and Senate are both considering proposals that would preempt states from establishing motor vehicle regulations on AVs. This is particularly important to AV developers, who have been increasingly concerned about the emerging patchwork of AV regulations. These are creating confusion among AV developers during the testing phase and may ultimately deter deployment.

According to industry experts and Congressional staff familiar with the negotiations, there is significant bipartisan support in both chambers for some sort of legislation to accelerate AV development – but little consensus to be found.

As is often the case, the devil is in the details. The challenge is building a legislative package that contains appropriate safeguards for NHTSA to prevent the proliferation of AVs that are unsafe, while also maintaining the United States’ competitiveness in this industry.

For this reason, Thune has been somewhat less bullish than his colleague in the House, opting instead for cautious optimism. As of May, Senate staff said had already held around 150 meetings with automakers, tech firms, safety advocates and other relevant groups – all of which came with vastly different proposals.

“We’re not there yet but we are getting closer,” he told Reuters.

Staffers have indicated that the Senate bill will likely be introduced before the end of July. More details may emerge next week during a Senate Commerce hearing to explore regulatory barriers to AV testing, with a particular focus on state and federal roles in ensuring safety.

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