The first federal laws for self-driving cars are starting to take shape

Automotive industry groups urged lawmakers on Tuesday to scrap the “patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations” that currently apply to autonomous vehicles.

David Strickland, general counsel for the self-driving trade group formed by Ford, Waymo, Lyft, Uber and Volvo Cars, urged the House Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sole authority over autonomous vehicles.

“We believe the LEAD’R Act is an important step in clarifying the appropriate federal and state roles and responsibilities when it comes to fully self-driving vehicles,” he said. “The federal government retains the authority to promulgate and enforce nationally uniform motor vehicle safety standards. We do not believe self-driving cars present a reason to deviate from that well-established precedent.”

Because there are no set federal standards — just a voluntary set of safety rules hashed out during the Obama administration — 22 states have imposed some form of regulation on self-driving cars within their borders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Self driving car rules statesNational Conference of State Legislatures22 states have implemented some form of regulation for self-driving cars

The “Let NHTSA Enforce Autonomous Vehicle Driving Regulations,” or LEAD’R Act, is just one of 14 draft bills the House Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee is reviewing in order to put a federal framework in place for autonomous vehicles.

Some committee members, however, aren’t so sure that the bill provides enough safety regulations.

Specifically, Democratic representatives pointed to new exemptions lobbied for by automakers. Under federal law, an automaker can receive a temporary, three-year exemption on up to 2,500 vehicles from NHTSA safety standards, so long as it can prove the car still provides adequate safety and protection.

As currently drafted, that cap would be raised to 10,000 vehicles over a 12-month period for each manufacturer.

“Exemptions are no substitute for safety standards,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. “There must be a responsible way to keep innovation moving forward while ensuring safety at every stage.”

Automakers argue that these exemptions are necessary to work out flaws in self-driving vehicles before they are ubiquitous across America roads, something Moody’s estimates will not happen until 2055.

“These exceptions are not willy nilly,” said Mitch Bainwol, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that represents 77% of all car and light truck sales in the United States. “This is a process where you submit evidence to NHTSA and it takes months to get an exemption. The notion that this is the wild west is not accurate.”

Congress only has about three more weeks before the August recess. It’s not clear whether or not the committee hopes to introduce a bill this session.

“We have an obligation to examine the best ways to deploy these technologies given the potential they have,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan. “Today’s hearing is an important step to finding partisan consensus on what I hope will be a non-partisan issue.”

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