New push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road

A bipartisan pair of senators are working to reintroduce legislation for federal regulations on self-driving cars, an effort that has long stalled on Capitol Hill.

The new drive though will need to overcome tough obstacles from Democrats and consumer groups who want major changes to the bill.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters this week that he is looking to reintroduce the AV START Act soon.

Thune said that he expects to reintroduce this legislation in the same “version that came out of the [Senate] Commerce Committee last Congress, which was the most recent version that everybody agreed upon that we were trying to make additional changes to try and get it across the finish line.”

A spokesperson for Thune later told The Hill that while there is no timeline for the bill, “staff-level conversations between the House and Senate are ongoing.”

Thune said that Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) will be “taking the lead” on the bill with him. Thune and Peters were the two main sponsors of the bill in the last Congress, when Thune was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and Peters the ranking member.

Peters told reporters on Tuesday that negotiations around the AV START Act are “still a work in progress,” but that he has had “meetings recently about it.”

But it is an open question if they can overcome the same challenges that blocked legislation in the past, in particular objections from Senate Democrats that the language on consumer safety and cybersecurity was not strong enough.

The legislation would put in place federal regulations and preempt individual states from creating their own laws around self-driving cars, a problem that could make it more difficult for vehicles to travel between states.

The bill’s language during the last Congress included cyber provisions meant to protect the vehicles from being hacked, such as ensuring the security of the supply chain for vehicle parts. That also included a provision requiring all autonomous vehicle manufacturers to develop and execute a plan for reducing cyber vulnerabilities.

However, a group of Democrats, including Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who blocked the bill from being passed by unanimous consent last year seem prepared to dig in their heels again this Congress.

Markey told The Hill this week that while he would need to review the bill’s language before taking a definite position, he “still would want strong cybersecurity, safety, privacy provisions that are in any bill that ultimately leaves the Senate.”

Blumenthal also told The Hill that he wants to review the language but noted that he “still has concerns over security and safety,” including those around cybersecurity protocols involved in the cars.

Feinstein’s problems with the bill center more on how self-driving cars could impact traffic in California, concerns she reiterated when discussing efforts to reintroduce the bill.

“I have concerns about it because of the nature of California freeways, and putting unmanned automobiles on those freeways concern me greatly, and so before I would support anything I would really have to know how that plays out in California,” Feinstein told reporters this week. “Nobody has the numbers that we have, and probably the accident rate too.”

Consumer groups also have problems with the legislation.

William Wallace, the manager of safety policy for Consumer Reports, described the bill in a statement to The Hill as a “nonstarter.”

“It was a victory for consumers when that reckless legislation failed,” Wallace said. “Congress needs to take a different approach this session: sit down with consumer, public health, disability and other groups to craft policies that will deliver real protections while companies develop and roll out safe, well-designed self-driving cars for all.”

Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, took issue with the original AV START Act for requiring few new standards on issues such as cybersecurity, crash data reporting, and safety.

“To continue this hands-off approach only encourages a race to the bottom by non-traditional automakers getting their immature technology on the road as fast as possible, potentially undermining the long term safety benefit from autonomous vehicle technology to the driving, bicycling, and walking public,” Levine told The Hill.

However, a push from automakers for national regulation around self-driving cars has kept the conversation alive, as more car manufacturers see automation as the future of driving.

Ford is pursuing an initiative to have a fully autonomous vehicle in operation by 2021, while earlier this week Fiat Chrysler and self-driving car group Aurora announced they have teamed up develop autonomous commercial vehicles.

Uber also has been testing self-driving cars, although the company was involved in one fatal incident where a pedestrian was hit and killed by an autonomous vehicle in Uber’s testing program in Arizona in 2018.

A spokesperson for General Motors, another company testing self-driving cars, told The Hill that the organization is “encouraged” by efforts on Capitol Hill around regulations in this space.

“We look forward to continuing discussions on autonomous vehicles at the federal, state and local levels aimed at creating an environment to foster safe development, testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles,” the spokesperson said.

Despite potential pushback from Democrats and consumer groups, the upcoming reintroduction of the AV START Act may lead to renewed efforts around similar legislation in the House.

During the last Congress, the House passed similar legislation, the SELF DRIVE Act, by voice vote, but it never got a vote in the Senate.

A spokesperson for the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), told The Hill that Latta intends to reintroduce the SELF DRIVE Act “this year,” and would prefer to do so with bipartisan support. The legislation had over 30 bipartisan sponsors during the last Congress.

One of those sponsors was Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the chairman of the

House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue of self-driving cars. Pallone told The Hill on Thursday he was unsure of efforts to reintroduce the bill, highlighting the long road ahead.

“We passed in the last Congress, we would like to move it, but I don’t know where we are,” Pallone said.