Senate Faces Roadblock on Self-Driving Bill

By: Bridget Clerkin February 1, 2018
Safety features on autonomous vehicles like Volkwsagen's SEDRIC—a concept that lacks a steering wheel or pedals—are a concern for three U.S. senators who are stalling a self-driving car bill.

If the congressional push for national regulations on self-driving cars were a street sign, it would read: “Caution: Speed Bumps Ahead.”

What once seemed like a surefire legislative lock now looks like a lingering issue, thanks to three U.S. senators who have largely held up the passage of an otherwise popular bill.

Called the AV START Act, the measure, which outlines a number of rules on the development of autonomous autos, was fast-tracked from the beginning in order to let the cars hit the streets as quickly as possible. Many in Congress have pushed for the package’s swift passage, saying the technology would be a safety boon and the best chance to combat a growing number of deaths on the road.

But the legislation is now in political limbo due to concerns over the safety and security of the vehicles themselves.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), and Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) have taken a stand against pushing through a measure they say would inundate the roads with technology still very much in its beta phase.

Specifically, the senators have cited issues with a potential lack of cybersecurity and privacy in the cars—and the literal lack of a manual method to pilot the vehicles in case of an emergency. (The bill would allow for automakers to do away with pedals and steering wheels in self-driving models.)

A lack of any mention on self-driving trucks, which were formally introduced last year by Tesla and are already at the top of many major distributors’ wish lists, was also a cause of concern for the senators.

The trio is using a method called “hotlining,” in which sponsors of a bill are granted the chance to highlight concerns and assess a bill’s overall passability, to hold up the process. But the particular areas of their interest could prove to be tricky topics of discussion, with few paths for satisfactory solutions.

For their part, the House of Representatives resoundingly passed a similar bill last year. If lawmakers in the upper chamber were to ratify their own measure, it would pave the way for the first creation of national rules on the burgeoning self-driving technology.

Still, it remains unclear when—or if—that will happen. The Senate is already dealing with a hefty docket for 2018, and it remains to be seen whether the self-driving issues could be resolved in the coming legislative window.

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