Self-driving car technology is moving faster than anyone ever imagined. Automakers such as Ford and Nissan and tech companies such as Google are eyeing publicly available, fully autonomous vehicles by 2020.
Of course, government moves at a slower pace, and changes to long-established regulations—particularly when it comes to cars and their economic impact and safety implications—can take years to wind through the various branches of government, especially at the federal level. And with the unprecedented partisan divisions in D.C., federal laws overseeing autonomous vehicle technology could be in for an uphill climb.
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But in a rare display of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill this week, the House passed the SELF-DRIVE Act after it was unanimously approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee ahead of the August recess. The bill's biggest impact is that it calls for implementing regulation of self-driving cars at the federal level, negating a patchwork of state laws that have been enacted in recent years.
Another important component of the bill is that developers of self-driving technology would get exemptions from federal safety standards that normally cover motor vehicles, such as, say, requiring a steering wheel and pedals. The bill would also allow developers of the technology to deploy up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles a year, although the number will be limited to 25,000 in the first year.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it may not be on the same fast track, as the chamber faces an unusually heavy legislative workload.
Competing Regulations in Play
Complicating matters, the Senate and the Trump administration have their own approaches on how to regulate self-driving cars.
In June, Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), John Thune (R-SD), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) outlined their own self-driving car legislation. They plan to hold a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee on Sept. 13 to decide whether self-driving vehicle legislation should also include autonomous trucks.
The Trump administration is expected to issue its own policy on self-driving cars as soon as next week. Reuters reports that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao plans to unveil guidelines for autonomous vehicles as an update to the voluntary safety checklist issued under former President Barack Obama in 2016.
But President Trump has not nominated a director for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the arm of the USDOT tasked with implementing self-driving car regulations. In addition, a panel of self-driving experts advising the US government on the technology dispersed without ever holding a meeting, according to Recode.
While developers of self-driving technology have praised the House bill, some are skeptical. Consumer Reports' policy arm, Consumers Union, says lawmakers should require stronger safety regulations on autonomous vehicles, while labor unions are concerned about the impact the technology will have on jobs, especially in industries like trucking.
Overseas, Germany and China have moved autonomous vehicle regulation into the fast lane to help their countries' homegrown industries. When the group of US senators announced their legislation in June, Sen. Peters noted that it "will help the federal government promote the safe development and adoption of self-driving vehicles and ensure the United States remains the world leader in transportation innovation."
But if the three branches of federal government don't hurry to get aligned on autonomous vehicle regulation, the US could be left behind.