Lawmakers and American car manufacturers are mounting a last-ditch effort to move legislation setting up an initial regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles to President Trump before the end of the year.
While a bill from Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., is stalled in the chamber amid opposition from several Democrats and trial attorneys, progress during recent talks may soon yield an updated version, people familiar with the matter told the Washington Examiner.
If the measure doesn't advance before the end of the year, supporters worry that Democrats would seek significant changes to the legislation once they take control of the House in January, stalling what the industry says is a desperately needed federal oversight structure.
“If they can’t get it done under favorable conditions in this Congress, I suspect you are going to see a lot of developers looking abroad to make these critical investments,” Marc Scribner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in a recent interview. “It signals to the industry that Congress can’t be serious about this.”
While the Department of Transportation, headed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, is pursuing its own separate rule-making on the issue, that could take several years to complete.
An extension of existing regulatory limbo could complicate the ambitions of companies such as Google’s Waymo, which plans to launch its own autonomous ride-share fleet as soon as December.
While Waymo could proceed with the pilot project, it would be limited in expanding the initiative beyond the current cap of 2,500 vehicles that are exempt from federal safety requirements.
Casting further doubt over the prospects for this year is the Trump administration’s lack of involvement in the discussions.
Chao, the Transportation secretary, continues to have concerns with the bill, and the agency hasn't participated actively in negotiations, the people said.
"The Department has provided technical assistance and policy input on this legislation to Congress at various stages over the last year and a half. While not concluded, the process is productive and ongoing," an agency spokesman said, adding that Chao has not taken a public position on the measure.
A spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee declined to comment.
Even if the Senate were to pass the legislation — which would probably have to be done via a floor vote, given the opposition among some members — the House might prove unwilling to sign off on a measure that differs from its own 2017 bill, given the limited time to negotiate compromises.
A spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee didn't respond to an emailed inquiry on the matter.
A pivotal component of the ongoing discussions in the Senate is whether customers would be forced into arbitration for any legal complaints over the new technology.
Some experts tracking the negotiations expect the chamber to include language prohibiting, to some extent, mandatory arbitration requirements.