The US House of Representatives passed a bill today that could accelerate the rollout of self-driving technology. The Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act, or “SELF DRIVE” Act, quickly cleared the House with unanimous support, and now moves to the Senate. If it passes there, it could become the first national law for self-driving cars in the United States.
The overarching goal of the Self Drive Act is to establish a federal framework for the regulation of self-driving cars, something industry experts say is sorely needed in the early days of the technology. It would also dramatically increase the possible number of autonomous vehicles on the road. Right now, automakers and companies interested in testing self-driving technology have to apply for exemptions to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) federal motor vehicle safety standards, and the agency only grants 2,500 per year. The Self Drive Act would increase that cap to 25,000 per year initially, and expand it up to 100,000 annually in three years’ time.
Automakers originally proposed the rule changes in February of this year, arguing at the time that current federal standards are too prohibitive because they were written for cars that require human drivers. And since fully self-driving cars potentially won’t need things like pedals or a steering wheel, these companies wanted to break some of those restrictions now in order to make it easier to research and test self-driving cars in real-world settings.
The Self Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group that includes Google, Ford, Uber, Lyft, Volvo, and more, released a statement praising the House for passing the act. “Self-driving vehicles offer an opportunity to significantly increase safety, improve transportation access for underserved communities, and transform how people, goods and services get from point A to B,” they wrote.
“The bottom line is this is very good news for the auto industry and those companies that are involved in self-driving vehicles,” Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for Autotrader, tells The Verge. “It really gives them an opportunity to do significant testing and put together all the research that’s required to make sure that this is truly a step forward in road safety, which is the ultimate goal.”
It also allows all 50 states to innovate on self-driving technology, says Greg Rogers, a policy analyst for the Eno Center for Transportation. “This will really allow states to focus on their core roles of registering vehicles, enforcing traffic laws, and managing insurance and liability, because these are still critical components of our transportation network.”
The Self Drive Act won’t give these companies free rein to test whatever they want on public roads, though. In its current form, the act requires automakers to prove that the self-driving car in question is at least as safe as its human-piloted equivalent in order to be granted an exemption. Companies applying for exemptions would also be required to report any crashes involving exempted vehicles. The act also requires automakers to list those vehicles in a public database, and it includes provisions for ensuring certain levels of data privacy and cybersecurity.
Still, Rogers thinks the act would open the door for ride-sharing services that are working on autonomous vehicles — like Lyft and GM, Uber, and Waymo — to start earnestly testing beyond the small self-driving pilot programs they’ve already launched in certain parts of the country.
“That really will be the first area of exposure people will have to autonomous vehicles, is riding in driverless Ubers, Lyfts, or taxi services, and for a long time — the next five, 10, 20 years,” Rogers argues. “Owning [self-driving] vehicles is going to be mostly a luxury afforded to the elite. But allowing consumers to get first hand experience with them through Uber, Lyft, and other services won’t only accelerate the technology, but it will help us understand how people interact with it.”
That’s only if the act makes it through the Senate without any major changes, though. Representatives from both sides of the aisle supported the House bill, just as they did earlier this summer when it initially passed out of a House subcommittee with an overwhelming 54-0 vote. But the way the Self Drive Act was architected has the potential to tip the long-standing balance of power when it comes to regulating motor vehicles. And that could spell trouble for its ultimate fate.
For years, states have regulated the safety regarding the operation of vehicles, while the federal government has been in charge of the safety of the vehicle itself. This is why we’ve seen such a slow patchwork of self-driving regulations pop up around the country even though there’s a handful of companies with technology that seems ready to be tested in the real world.
The Self Drive Act would make it so that states can no longer write legislation that the auto industry considers restrictive — like in New York, for example, which requires expensive police escorts for autonomous tests. It would instead leave it in the hands of the federal government, which can make the guidelines more uniform. “The lack of regulations has often been cited as a potential obstacle to the proliferation of self-driving vehicles,” Krebs says. “So having this federal framework, if it gets passed by the Senate, will take care of that.”
Not everyone is a fan of the way the Self Drive Act lays out this solution. Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who works on self-driving technology, worries that the liability issues haven’t been properly worked out. Mixing that with an accelerated approach to getting self-driving cars on the road could spell trouble, he warns.
“We have a whole bunch of other companies, the non-carmakers and non-automotive suppliers, who basically want to get a foothold and some publicity by being the first on the road, and don’t necessarily understand the complexities of what happens in the real world,” he says. “Things go wrong. I worry that people could get hurt in the process. And if people get hurt, and god forbid somebody gets killed, that in turn could induce a backlash, and people could start saying ‘this technology is too immature.’”
There are policy discrepancies, too. The National Conference of State Legislatures released a letter overnight asking lawmakers to clarify the language of the act so states can be sure of their role going forward.
“Unfortunately, the bill currently being considered by the House seeks to significantly expand federal pre-emption of states by moving beyond the traditional definition of motor vehicle safety to encroach on vehicle operations, currently under the states’ purview,” the NCSL writes. But the group points out that the bill also states that it won’t prohibit a state or local government from “maintaining, enforcing, prescribing, or continuing in effect any law or regulation regarding registration, licensing.”
“We ask the House to make clear and reaffirm the traditional federal and state roles when it comes to vehicle safety standards and safety of vehicle operations,” the group writes.
According to Rogers, the Senate is already drafting its own self-driving legislation that would continue to allow cities and states to regulate autonomous vehicles on their own terms, or even ban them outright. In this scenario, companies that want to deploy self-driving cars would be allowed to apply for test licenses through NHTSA, and that would allow them to bypass those local regulations. This way, he says, the states maintain some of their power over the safety of vehicle operations, while placing more liability with NHTSA if something goes wrong within their jurisdiction.
All of this will have to be reconciled when the Self Drive Act moves to the Senate. When that happens is unclear; the Senate has an extremely full plate at the moment.
What’s important, Rogers says, is that the government finally seems familiar with the possible benefits of self-driving technology, to the point that it’s united them in a time when bipartisanship feels impossible. Almost every representative that spoke during the House session this morning mentioned how autonomous cars could increase mobility for the elderly or disabled, help reduce emissions, or, perhaps most importantly, reduce the number of deaths caused by car accidents,
“It’s something that we often lose sight of, especially in Congress,” Rogers says. “Providing people with more information about what vehicles are being tested, where they are, and how many crashes [happen] is a good thing overall — not just for consumers and the government, but it’s good for society as a whole to be aware of this technology, to be aware of its lifesaving potential.”