Congress’ Autonomous Car Bill on the Brink of Extinction

By: Bridget Clerkin November 13, 2018
Can the House and Senate come together to pass self-driving vehicle legislation before the end of the year, or will they have to start from scratch come 2019?
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What a difference a year makes.

Last October, Congress was on the brink of a rare bipartisan victory: a slate of regulations set out for autonomous cars seemed destined to sail through the legislative process.

But, 12 months later, the measure is still dormant. If the governing body doesn’t act soon to resurrect it, the rules will be put to sleep—for good.

When they were first devised last year, the House’s SELF DRIVE Act and the Senate’s corresponding AV START Act were heralded by members of both parties—as well as many in the tech and automotive worlds—as cornerstones of the autonomous car movement. The measures were intended to lay out ground rules for the burgeoning industry specifically around the design, construction, and performance of the vehicles.

But what once seemed like a lock is incurring increasingly long odds on its way to passage.

In order to become the law of the land, the rules must still undergo several key steps: the Senate must pass its version of the bill, and both chambers must then create—and pass—a compromised version.

By the first day of 2019, the bill will be officially dead and any renewed effort to get regulations passed would have to be started from scratch.

Further complicating matters are the recent midterm elections, which brought in a number of fresh faces and newly-minted politicians and swept out a few old ones who may have had more personal stock in the project or knowhow on getting things passed quickly.

This group has to act fast: the end of this year marks the last stop for the legislation. By the first day of 2019, the bill will be officially dead, and any renewed effort to get regulations passed would have to be restarted from scratch.

The first signs of trouble emerged this winter, when the process hit a snag after several senators raised concerns about how their version dealt with—or didn’t deal with—the issues of privacy and cybersecurity.

Specifically, the group of dissenters had misgivings about a provision that would let companies build vehicles without pedals or steering wheels—or any back-up measures that would allow a human to regain control of the car in case of emergency.

Several states have already allowed for pedal- and steering wheel-free models to be tested on their roads, but members of Congress have maintained that the federal government has ultimate control over such stipulations, and any national law would supersede a statewide measure. (States technically only have purview over a vehicle’s licensing, registration, and emissions standards.)

That separation of powers is another reason why tech and automotive companies had been so invested in the measures’ passage. Indeed, many manufacturers have repeatedly asked for greater federal guidance on the vehicles, wary to fast-track too many designs that may only be deemed unlawful by some future legislation.

Yet barring some diesel-powered sprint across the finish line, it seems the concept may be permanently stalled, making Congress just one more entity that has seemingly lost interest in the once red-hot topic of autonomous cars.

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