(TNS) -- Auto industry representatives have made a push in Washington for greater federal oversight and authority to regulate self-driving cars while consumer safety watchdogs warned Congress about the dangers of proposed federal legislation that they say goes too far.
The automotive industry said it supports legislation that would give the industry the ability to test and deploy much larger fleets of driverless cars and make it clear that federal regulations takes precedence over state laws.
Stronger, more consistent regulations are needed, they say, to spur innovation and prevent a confusing patchwork of state legislation from getting in the way.
"As we meet today, the U.S. lacks a critical uniform national framework to advance these technologies," said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Bainwol was among several industry representatives and safety advocates who testified today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in favor of a package of 14 bills set to be introduced sometime in July. That legislation is similar to legislation Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, and others are planning to introduce in the Senate in the coming weeks.
"It will be very comprehensive. ... It recognizes we need to have a complete rewrite of federal regulations for motor vehicles when you take the driver out of the car," Peters said of the legislation he is working on.
The need for a comprehensive, clear regulatory framework is gaining urgency because automotive and technology companies are making rapid advances, and in some cases are getting ahead of existing regulations.
Meanwhile, 22 states — including Michigan — have adopted legislation related to autonomous vehicle testing. Automakers and tech companies including Ford, General Motors, Google's Waymo and many others are testing fleets of self-driving cars in Michigan and elsewhere.
David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, said "states should be discouraged from creating a patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations relating to such standards that have the potential to stifle this emerging industry."
Industry experts say the introduction of self-driving vehicles has the potential to reduce traffic accidents, improve highway safety and very likely will eventually spark the most dramatic change in the way transportation works in America in the past 100 years. But for that to happen, the government needs to strike the right balance between encouraging innovation and regulating the industry.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., argued that smart federal regulation is essential for U.S. automakers to stay ahead of global industry innovation.
"It is not about if this technology is going to be developed, it is where it is going to be developed and by whom," Dingell said.
Dingell told the Free Press earlier she and others are also talking with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, about the draft bills.
As currently drafted, the legislation debated today in the House would:
Establish sole authority for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the regulation of highly automated vehicles.
Expressly preempt any state laws that prevent the testing or deployment of self-driving cars or technology.
Dramatically increase the number of vehicles that automakers can deploy annually that don’t meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The industry says this is necessary because, for example, federal regulations require a steering wheel and driverless cars might not have a steering wheel. The legislation would increase the annual exemptions for such vehicles from 2,500 annually per automaker to 100,000 annually.
William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the parent organization of Consumer Reports, warned Congress not to go too far by weakening states' regulatory authority and said NHTSA needs to be better-funded to monitor the industry.
"Preemption of state and local authority should be narrowly tailored and limited to areas where NHTSA has set strong federal standards," he said.
Both the industry and safety advocates say they are excited about the possibility that driverless cars could lead to fewer traffic accidents and fatalities.
After years of steady declines, fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. increased 3.5% in 2015 — the largest increase in 25 years — and were on track to increase to more than 40,000 in 2016, according to a mid-year report issued by NHTSA last year.
But Wallace argued that the industry's expectation for safety benefits from driverless cars might be overstated.
"In the current versions of the draft bills, it is unclear what statistics or analyses support the dramatic expansion of exemptions available for highly automated vehicles. In particular, no specific safety-related justification has been presented," Wallace said.
A number of representatives also expressed concern that the proposed legislation gives NHTSA more power and authority than it is capable of doing with its current staffing and funding.
"The little we’ve heard from NHTSA is troubling," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. "While the bills before us deal with a number of industry requests ... there are no directives for NHTSA" to develop clear testing standards.
Said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., "I am concerned that no one is here from NHTSA today to testify."
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