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Who’s the Boss? Congress Eyes Autonomous Vehicle Rules that Would Wipe Out States’ Oversight of the Technology

By: Bridget Clerkin June 22, 2017
The U.S. Congress is looking to federalize all self-driving vehicle regulations, taking the power to do so out of the hands of states.

The more friction an object encounters, the more slowly it will travel through space. It’s a basic law of physics—and, it seems, the basis of potential new laws about self-driving cars.

A group of new federal proposals concerning the technology was recently released for review, offering a first glimpse at how driverless vehicles could be regulated in the future.

And in order to quicken the pace at which autonomous autos can take over our roads, some members of Congress are looking to remove as much drag from the process as possible—including any weight state agencies may hold over the industry.

Separate—But Equal?

Streamlining is a classic way to reduce resistance on a speeding object, and it seems that’s exactly the government’s intention for rapidly-moving self-driving technology.

In the group of proposals—a 45-page draft comprised of 14 separate bills, which were recently obtained by several news outletsultimate oversight of the industry is consolidated under the federal government, while states would be banned from creating their own laws on the testing or design of such vehicles.

Specifically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is named as the lead agency in regulating the technology, which would give it precedent over state organizations and the policies they create—or have already created.

A list of guiding principles for the legislation, recently released by the senators drafting the bills, explains this as the “reinforce[ment] of separate federal and state roles.” Traditionally, it says, the federal government has maintained the power to dictate details about cars, trucks, and buses, while states are afforded the right to regulate driver behavior within those vehicles.

If passed, the legislation would represent a clear win for automakers, which collectively pushed Congress for new protocols easing up on the oversight and testing of self-driving technology.

Indeed, a set of guidelines issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT) last year reinforced the same hierarchical notion, saying it would help smooth out differences in state regulations on the emerging technology, making for an easier path toward developing fully autonomous cars.

But even as the newly-proposed rules cede power to the NHTSA, they go on to hamstring the organization, barring it—or any federal regulators—from demanding pre-market approval of self-driving vehicle technology, according to the news groups that have reviewed the documents.

The loophole would allow the car manufacturers to release new versions of their machinery to the public without first gaining federal approval and leaves states helpless to stop that technology from reaching their roads, with no ability to draft their own rules on the matter.

Should the legislation be passed, it would represent a clear win for automakers, which were collectively pushing Congress for new protocols that eased up on the oversight and testing of self-driving technology as recently as February.

But a regulation-free environment isn’t the only advantage the industry would see in the new proposals.

Equal & Opposite Reactions

Self-driving cars may make transportation safer in the future, which is one of the reasons lawmakers say they're interested in de-regulating the industry and speeding it to market.
Self-driving cars may make transportation safer in the future, which is one of the reasons lawmakers say they're interested in de-regulating the industry and speeding it to market.

The federal government has long championed self-driving cars, touting their potential to curb fatal accidents on our roads—which recently reached record highs.

But autonomous technology is still far from its ultimate realization, and even if it were to perform flawlessly, it must react to the imperfect conditions of the world around it.

In other words, accidents do—and will—happen. And many states that have opened their streets to early autonomous prototypes require automakers to report any incidents involving their self-driving cars.

In particularly stringent states, like California, that information is part of the public record. But the new regulations proposed by Congress would free up carmakers from reporting such material, deeming all crash data—as well as other testing and validation reports that are demanded by some states—as confidential business information.”

Other aspects of the draft legislation would exempt up to 100,000 vehicles per year from federal motor vehicle safety rules and give manufacturers a 5-year window during which they could flout nationwide safety standards. The current limits are set at 2,500 vehicles and 2 years, respectively.

That type of wiggle room would allow automakers to potentially sell models without steering wheels or pedals to the public, a practice the Department of Transportation currently bans—though the agency approved testing of such prototypes.

All told, the new regulations would essentially reverse a large part of the 15-point plan issued by the DOT last year, which asked automakers to voluntarily supply the NHTSA with vehicle testing information before bringing the technology to market—an aspect that was widely agreed to by automakers at the time.

Down the Road

For the 18 states with self-driving laws already on the books, the proposals represent a huge scaling back of local responsibility, although they would still require legislation regarding insurance, registration, licensing, liability, education, and traffic laws to be dictated on a state level.

While the bills may not be officially drafted into law in the near future—or even at all—they show the willingness on a federal level to give self-driving technology the force it needs to overcome any drag.

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