WASHINGTON — Some city government officials and advocacy groups say they are uneasy about aspects of self-driving vehicle legislation that is taking shape in the U.S. Senate.
They’re worried the legislation could undercut the ability of cities to enforce local traffic laws. They also want to ensure that states and localities have ample access to self-driving vehicle data, which might be used to identify safety risks and to manage roadways.
There are other questions as well. Like how any final bill might deal with driverless buses.
That said, there is support at the local level for congressional lawmakers to come up with a national framework for automated vehicles. And no local governments appear to be clamoring for control over areas that have traditionally been overseen at the federal level, like those that have to do with vehicle crashworthiness and other manufacturing standards.
“We're really glad to see the federal government kind of stepping up and paying attention to the space,” said Bena Chang, a transportation policy specialist with the city of San José, California.
“I don't think it makes a lot of sense for the rules to change drastically from city to city,” she added.
Earlier this month, the House passed a bill that seeks to develop new, national standards for automated vehicles. The Senate Commerce Committee is now discussing a draft text that focuses on similar issues.
Senate aides familiar with the draft assert that lawmakers do not want to hinder the authority cities or states have to manage traffic on their streets, or to uphold local rules of the road.
“We don't want to let a sense get out there that there are provisions or clauses in our legislation that are intended to restrict the abilities of states or localities to set speed limits, or set traffic lights, or stop signs, or directions for vehicles, or restrict their ability, basically, to manage streets and roadways,” said Frederick Hill, communications director for the Commerce Committee.
The committee is chaired by U.S. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican.
“The intention of this legislation is to strike the right balance between federal regulation and state and local regulation for a world with automated vehicles,” Hill added.
A Senate staffer did acknowledge, however, that there are unresolved discussions about data-sharing, which largely hinge on how to provide access to information generated by self-driving vehicles, while also protecting privacy and shielding proprietary information.
Deron Lovaas, a senior policy adviser with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups tracking the legislation, pointed to language in the Senate draft that he believes raises potential concerns when it comes to federal preemption of states and localities.
A section of the legislation, called “Relationship to Other Laws,” says states and localities cannot enact or enforce laws or regulations relating to any of the “subject areas” in a safety evaluation report that is described in a later section of the bill.
Manufacturers introducing new automated vehicles would be required to submit these reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
One of the subject areas the reports would cover is “compliance with applicable laws,” which deals with the capability of automated vehicles to comply with traffic laws and rules. Based on the earlier language in the bill, this would seem to be one of the areas where states and localities would be restricted from enacting or enforcing laws and regulations.
“On a plain reading of this, I don’t know how this isn’t a form of preemption,” Lovaas said.
The language in the “Relationship to other Laws” section of the bill is bracketed in the draft text, indicating that it is not nailed down.
Senate staffers stressed that the version of the bill under discussion is a draft that has not yet been formally introduced and said that some issues not spelled out in the legislation could be dealt with in more detail through regulations put out by the Transportation Department.
The advocacy group Transportation for America and the National Association of City Transportation Officials in a joint statement last week criticized the Senate draft bill.
One argument they made is that it “strips states and local governments of the authority to manage the vehicles on their roadways and leaves them without the tools to deal with problems already arising during the testing and deployment of automated vehicles.”
Both Republican and a Democratic Senate aides on Wednesday pushed back against this characterization of the bill.
Lovaas noted that there may be a tension between what industry wants and what cities want out of the legislation.
But he suspects concerns about preemption could be addressed with minor revisions to the language in the Senate draft. For instance, a “saving clause” of some sort that makes clear that local and state traffic laws will not be preempted by federal rule-making. “I think this is a fixable problem,” Lovaas said. “I don’t think this is a fatal flaw.”
Chang, the transportation official in San José, echoed that view: “I think there are some improvements that could be made just to clarify who has the authority to do what.”
Data-sharing provisions in the legislation are another chief concern for city governments.
The Senate draft calls for manufacturers of automated vehicles to submit a range of information in the safety evaluation reports.
Even those critiquing the data-sharing language in the legislation say the reports are a step in the right direction.
But some would like to see the information shared with greater frequency and specificity—especially when it pertains to crashes, other problems, and “disengagements,” which is a term that refers to when drivers take control of an automated vehicle.
“It's definitely a priority for us that we want to have good data around safety and we want to make sure that that data is available to us,” said Chang. Both the House and Senate bills could be tightened, she said, to better explain how cities and states could access vehicle data. "I think there's some confusion about whether or not that would be available."
Asked about what requirements the legislation would include for information in the safety reports to be shared with states and localities on a timely basis, one of the Senate aides familiar with the bill said the topic was still under discussion.
They added that lawmakers recognize “there are legitimate points that have been raised about data sharing.”
It’s not only safety data from the vehicles that cities and others are interested in.
Evan Corey, new mobility program manager at the Seattle Department of Transportation highlighted other examples, like vehicles speeds, traffic volumes and aggregated data about where vehicles are picking up or dropping off passengers.
“That's very valuable information that can help cities, states, metropolitan planning organizations, plan for streets, plan for transportation systems, set policy in smarter ways than we do right now,” he said.
Brittney Kohler, director for transportation and infrastructure for the National League of Cities, said the group sees opportunities for improvements and clarifications with the language in the draft Senate legislation that guides how data is collected, handled and used.
Provisions in the draft text that might unlock information cities can harness for transportation planning are currently somewhat limited, according to Kohler.
“That’s a concern that I think is broadly held by folks,” she said.
“This is the first time that Congress has attempted to tackle autonomous vehicles significantly,” Kohler added. “We don’t want to miss any opportunities when it comes to data.”
Buses and Trucks
Kohler said an issue National League of Cities members have consistently raised is how the legislation now under discussion, or future bills, will deal with autonomous buses. “There are situations where those are already in place and being tested,” she said.
One of the Senate aides said whether the Senate bill ends up covering buses is for now entwined with a debate over whether it should include trucks. This is because including trucks would mean leaving language out of the bill limiting vehicle weights to 10,000 pounds.
Thune has expressed support for including commercial trucks in the legislation along with passenger vehicles.
Trucking industry groups would like to see that happen. But the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the nation’s largest labor union for truck drivers, says big rigs should be left out, citing threats to truck-driving jobs and potential safety risks.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, has had a lead role in crafting the bill. He voiced doubts at a Commerce Committee hearing last week that it should cover trucks.
As of Wednesday, the Commerce Committee did not have any further hearings scheduled for the self-driving vehicle bill. Thune indicated last week that a possible timeline for the legislation would be to get it filed and marked-up by early October.
Looking ahead, some at the city level want to see more consideration given to their input.
"We're concerned about the lack of engagement with local communities and even with state DOTs,” Corey said. “It seems like a lot of the work that has been done has been largely driven by industry.”
"This is a technology," he added, "that is going to fundamentally change how people move around cities."