Less than five years ago, autonomous vehicle (AV) technology was merely a concept — a look at what the future may hold. But autonomous vehicles entering the public sphere has quickly become a question of when, not if; a reality in which AVs on our roadways is rapidly approaching. And more than 80 state bills introduced across the country are working toward regulating this developing industry.
The federal government also is working on regulation; during a congressional hearing on June 27, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee discussed 14 proposed pieces of self-driving vehicle legislation that it plans to compile into one legislative package.
Traditionally states regulate drivers while the federal government regulates the vehicle. States have created the rules for driver eligibility through licensing and insurance requirements, and maintaining surface street and freeway conditions. Meanwhile the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determines what type of vehicles are able to operate within the United States by enforcing the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
But as U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., noted during the questioning period, “Vehicles are now the driver.”
As such, subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, noted in his opening statement that "we must define the right roles for federal, state and local government."
That being said, he insisted on a standard framework for highly autonomous vehicles because “we can’t have cars that stop at state lines.” The purpose of the meeting was to begin crafting the framework that will ultimately lead to bipartisan legislation that regulates self-driving vehicles, he explained.
14 Legislation Drafts
These are the 14 proposed pieces of self-driving vehicle legislation that the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee plans to compile into one legislative package.
“The 14 bills before us today represent the starting point, by no means the ending point,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., adding that the bills were created solely by the committee's Republican majority members, but she and fellow members of the Democratic minority are willing to work with colleagues to craft the best legislation possible.
The bills in their current form rely on increasing the number of exemptions NHTSA is able to grant to vehicles that do not adhere to FMVSS, which were created with human drivers in mind. For example, there is a requirement for a steering wheel, acceleration and brake pedals. Increasing the number of exemptions the agency can grant has been requested by AV manufacturers, which are hampered in the amount of testing they are able to complete because of these exemptions. The suite of bills also codifies a national framework for federal legislation to overrule or pre-empt state regulations.
“The key elements of the majority approach are exemptions and state preemption,” she said. “Notably absent from these bills before us is any direction for rulemaking by NHTSA … exemptions are no substitute for updated safety standards.”
Frank Pallone, D-N.J., echoed the sentiments of Schakowsky. Frustrated that a representative from NHTSA was not able to testify, Pallone urged caution in moving forward with any legislation without the agency’s input.
“[We] should not move bills out of committee without hearing from the administration about how the bills could or would be implemented," Pallone said, and then described the “leadership vacuum” at the agency. He also mentioned how the budget released by the White House prescribes NHTSA an agenda driven by deregulation, which is counterproductive to the current challenge of regulating autonomous vehicles.
After the opening statements, the spotlight was on the panel composed of representatives from the automotive and technology industries, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and consumer protections groups. Making sure safety was the motivating factor in all policy decisions, certain members of the panel also spoke about avoiding a patchwork of regulations.
Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, offered his support of the current package of bills. As a representative from the traditional automobile companies, Bainwol argued that the country needs a standard framework so auto companies can set uniform manufacturing settings. He along with other members of the panel applauded the proposed increase in the number of exemptions allowed by NHTSA.
A dissenting viewpoint came from Alan Morrison, associate dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law at the George Washington University Law School, who urged legislators to set clearer requirements by which exemptions from federal motor vehicle safety standards will be granted, if they plan to expand the limit.
Morrison also said he found the strategy relating to federal pre-emption of state laws perplexing. "I know of no law in which Congress has attempted to preclude states from acting when neither it nor any federal agency has taken any action in that subject area," he said.
This technology is transformative not only in terms of safety, but also increasing mobility options for underserved communities. In one exchange, David Strickland, spokesperson for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, acknowledged that there are 36 million Americans in the disabled community, and more than 20 million are able to work but are hampered by mobility obstacles. Similarly with an aging population, self-driving vehicles could prolong independence for seniors.
Some legislators questioned the panel on the level of consumer confidence. While several surveys have shown the hesitancy of the public to enter self-driving vehicles, Bainwol offered the perspective that the more exposed to self-driving technology people are, the more accepting they will be. He said he believes that the most common exposure will be through ride-sharing services, such as Lyft, Uber, Maven and Chariot. “AV technology will be available in less than five years,"he said, "and ubiquitous within 40.”
Because there are so many aspects surrounding the onset of autonomous vehicles to consider, Latta explained that "we want to make sure we get it right. [This] is a huge issue, so we need to make sure we get it right."
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.