Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are making a renewed effort this year to pass legislation that would create federal safety and security standards for autonomous vehicles.
Congressional efforts to regulate autonomous vehicles have largely been bipartisan, but bills in both the House and Senate have struggled to advance over concerns about safety provisions.
Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are nonetheless pledging to work toward overcoming those differences in the 117th Congress.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who has led the charge on self-driving vehicle legislation in past years among GOP senators, is planning to tackle the issue again this year.
“Senator Thune remains committed to advancing bipartisan automated vehicle legislation this Congress, which will modernize motor vehicle safety standards and establish a uniform regulatory framework for automated vehicles,” a spokesperson for Thune told The Hill last week.
“Senator Peters looks forward to working with manufacturers, advocates, his colleagues in Congress and the Biden Administration on the best path forward to establish a strong federal framework that will usher in the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles,” a spokesperson for Peters told The Hill.
“This is an issue that Congress must work together to address so that self-driving vehicles can be safely deployed, consumers can be protected and so that these life-saving technologies can be developed and built in the United States,” the spokesperson added.
Peters and Thune were the main sponsors of the AV START Act, which failed to get a vote in the Senate in 2018 after a handful of Democrats expressed concerns around language on safety and security.
The Senate effort came on the heels of the House approving a similar but different piece of legislation in 2017. Since then, neither chamber has voted on autonomous vehicle legislation.
Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last year introduced legislation, but their bill failed to gain Democratic support, though Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) held a hearing on the topic in 2020.
The inability to get a bipartisan bill across the finish line is creating a dilemma for automakers who are increasingly investing in the new technology. Without congressional action, states may lose patience and begin setting their own rules of the road.
“The current patchwork of voluntary guidance at the federal level is simply not sufficient to ensure the United States can remain a global leader on auto innovation — and a leader in manufacturing jobs in this field,” the spokesperson for Peters said.
That’s leading to industry pressure.
The Self-Driving Coalition, which represents companies including Ford, Uber, Lyft and Waymo, is working with Congress and the Department of Transportation to create a federal framework, emphasizing the potential for autonomous vehicles to save lives.
“It starts from the basic and central notion that what causes accidents predominantly is human error, and what this technology first and foremost is going to be doing is making the roads safer,” said Ariel Wolf, counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fundamental premise, forest from the trees, that by significantly diminishing human errors we could save tens of thousands of lives,” he added.
But while the technology could serve to significantly reduce fatalities and injuries, safety and security concerns persist.
A self-driving Uber test vehicle hit and killed a woman in Arizona in 2018, with the National Traffic Safety Board later concluding that the car had been unable to recognize the woman was jaywalking. Uber has since made changes to fix the problem.
Cybersecurity has also become an area of concern, as the vehicles could be open to vulnerabilities leading to grave consequences.
“I think cybersecurity is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about with autonomous vehicles,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Chase said that for now the focus should be on advanced driver assistance systems, such as braking and sensors used to detect objects around the vehicle.
“I don’t think autonomous vehicle legislation is needed because it’s a ways down the road and there are proven solutions that should be more pressing to save lives,” she said.
Still, she said the potential for uneven regulations among state governments means the Department of Transportation needs to play a role.
“We are optimistic and look forward to working with them, and it’s not just the safety community,” Chase said. “I think it’s really important that the department listen to the variety of voices in this space and not just the industry.”
Newly confirmed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has already made clear his interest and focus on autonomous vehicles.
“Automated vehicle technology is coming, it’s advancing very quickly, it is something that holds the potential to be transformative, and I think in many ways policy has not kept up,” Buttigieg said during his Senate confirmation hearing. “I look forward to digging in on that.”
When asked specifically by Peters if he would work with him and Thune to roll out legislation, Buttigieg was enthusiastic.
“Absolutely, I am enthusiastic about the opportunity and for America to lead the way,” he said.