We may never get to see the science fiction dream of flying cars in our lifetime, but Congress is working to make self-driving vehicles a part of everyday life.
The Senate Commerce Committee, on Oct. 4, held a markup of legislation that could serve as a prelude to the broad-based use of autonomous vehicles. The bill under review is S. 1885, The American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act. Sponsors include senators John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
A section-by-section breakdown of the bill can be found here.
“This legislation proposes common sense changes in law to keep pace with advances in self-driving technology,” Thune said in a statement. “By playing a constructive role in the development of self-driving transportation systems, our government can help save lives, improve mobility for all Americans, including those with disabilities, and create new jobs by making us leaders in this important technology. I’m proud of this bipartisan legislation but recognize there are still opportunities to make it even better.”
More than 90 percent of the 35,000 motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2015 were attributable to human error, Thune says. Highly Automated Vehicles (AVs) have the potential “to significantly reduce the tragic loss of life on our roads and bring dramatic mobility and efficiency benefits to America’s transportation system.”
The bill would require manufacturers to submit safety evaluation reports to the Secretary of Transportation with information addressing important factors including safety, crashworthiness, and cyber-security through documented testing, validation, and assessment. Reports must be submitted prior to the testing or deployment of a self-driving vehicle.
Utilizing bipartisan provisions from the SELF-DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388), which passed the House of Representatives without objection, ensures the Department of Transportation’s continued responsibility for automated vehicle design, construction, and performance while maintaining state and local roles in determining traffic laws, registration, and licensing.
The bill directs additional research and coordination with state and local governments on traffic safety and law enforcement challenges. It also creates specific requirements for manufacturers to ensure that all self-driving vehicles account for state and local traffic laws.
The legislation clarifies that new authorities for self-driving technologies in the AV START Act apply to vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less. It maintains existing Department of Transportation authority for advancing automated truck and bus technology in the future.
The bill also:
Directs the Department of Transportation to act quickly to modernize existing federal motor vehicle safety standards, which were written before self-driving vehicles were envisioned.
Directs the Secretary of Transportation to work with manufacturers to adopt policies related to coordination around and disclosure of potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
Requires manufacturers to develop and execute a comprehensive written plan for identifying and reducing cybersecurity risks to self-driving vehicles.
Establishes a committee of experts to identify and develop recommended standards, including for data recording and data access and sharing. Headed by the Secretary of Transportation, the committee will serve as a forum for stakeholders to make recommendations for these and other standards governing self-driving vehicles.
Advances guidelines on responsible consumer education and marketing, including on the capabilities and limitations of advanced driver assistance systems and self-driving vehicles, through the establishment of a dedicated working group.
Improves mobility for Americans with disabilities by preventing the denial of a license to operate a self-driving vehicle due to a disability.
Among those supporting the proposed legislation is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It warns, however, that a fractured regulatory system of state-by-state oversight could be a roadblock
“We appreciate the legislation’s provisions for a single national framework for vehicle safety and performance standards, and we urge the Senate Commerce Committee to ensure that such a framework applies to all types of motor vehicles including commercial vehicles,” Technology Engagement Center Senior Vice President Tim Day wrote to members of that committee.
“To be competitive in the global autonomous vehicle market, legislators must strike the critical, yet challenging, balance between innovation, safety, and privacy when developing standards for autonomous vehicles,” he added. “Innovators need a single set of federal standards as opposed to a patchwork of state laws, rules and regulations. We encourage the Committee to ensure that the legislation’s preemption provisions protect innovation and development from inconsistent state liability rules, potentially expansive litigation and entrepreneurial plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
Day added that: “Without effective and appropriate preemption, we risk impeding our innovators and ceding our leadership in this industry.”
Among the amendments under consideration by the Committee is including a manual override component to autonomous vehicles. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) suggested that the mandatory inclusion of manual controls is necessary to ensure safety, at least “until proven safer than human drivers.”
“There are a lot of scenarios that would necessitate a human being to take manual control, whether it is a cyber-attack, disruption of GPS signals, and criminal acts such as carjacking,” he said. “One article published this year described self-driving cars as a dream come true for car thieves, as they would be able to bring an autonomous vehicle to a stop,” he said.
The nation, with a “crumbling infrastructure,” is also “still many years away from having the smart infrastructure” needed to realize the true potential of autonomous vehicles,” Blumenthal added. “A manual override is still needed at this initial testing and development stage.”
Thune pushed back against the proposed amendment, joking that newspaper headlines would read: “Senate mandates drivers in driverless cars.”
“It completely undermines what we are trying to achieve here,” he said of human controls that could undermine the intended use of autonomous vehicles by the disabled, as well as commercial uses of unmanned transportation.
Beyond the current debate on autonomous vehicles, Blumenthal and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), as members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, have reintroduced legislation that would implement and improve cyber-security standards for cars.
The Security and Privacy in Your Car (SPY Car) Act directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Trade Commission to establish federal standards to secure our cars and protect drivers’ privacy, as well as establishes a rating system–or “cyber dashboard”–that informs consumers about how well the vehicle protects drivers’ security and privacy beyond those minimum standards.