House bill designed to speed deployment of autonomous vehicles, more work to come

This week, after months of wrangling and contentious hearings over the future of autonomous vehicles, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved H.R. 3388 – also known as the SAFE DRIVE Act.

While the House generally agrees about the potential for AVs to save lives, consumer groups remain skeptical that the public will be protected from malfunctioning vehicles or from those exempted from certain standards required of conventional vehicles, included crash-protection standards. They’ve also been asking for improvements regarding data sharing and cyber protections, among other things.

Basically, the bill, if put into action, would direct the U.S. Department of Transportation to set safety standards; prohibit states from unreasonably restricting the “design, construction, or performance” of AVs; and set parameters on exemptions to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. No definition of “performance” is included nor does the bill deal with concerns about data sharing.

Before the bill was approved in committee, changes were made to address the concerns of state and city governments, including:

  • A restoration of traditional responsibilities of states and localities related to “enforcing, prescribing, or continuing any laws or regulations regarding registration, licensing, driving education and training, insurance, law enforcement, crash investigations, safety and emissions inspections, congestion management of vehicles, or traffic, unless the law or regulation is an unreasonable restriction on the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems.” Notably, the terms “unreasonable restriction” and “performance” were not defined.
  • A rate of issuance of exemptions of AVs from federal motor-vehicle safety standards, by spreading the exemptions out over multiple years; and
  • A requirement – requested by the National League of Cities, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Transportation4American, and the Natural Resources Defense Council – that state and local governments be included as members of the Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Committee. This will give them a voice in looking out for vehicle occupancy, transit systems, and other societal factors highlighted recently by Mobility Lab’s Paul Mackie. A separate subcommittee on disability access was added and energy issues were included in the agenda of the infrastructure subcommittee.

NACTO notes, on its website, that the bill addresses many questions about the role of states and localities in ensuring safety, proper law enforcement, congestion management, and emissions standards. NACTO remains concerned that data sharing was not addressed in the bill, and portions of the bill, such as “vehicle performance,” remain vague and undefined.

September has started out as a big month for AV policy and law at the federal level. In addition to passage of the House bill, the Senate is expected to begin consideration of its own legislation later this month. Before that, perhaps as early as next week, U.S. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao is expected to roll out a revised Federal Autonomous Vehicle Policy.

Photo of driverless-car simulator by International Transport Forum/Flickr.

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