By on February 12, 2020

While the United States has enacted some laws governing autonomous vehicles, the framework is pretty loose. Automakers have a cap on the number of test vehicles they’re allowed to field. They also have to get permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but safety reporting is basically voluntary — and there’s plenty of conflict with existing safety standards.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing held Tuesday sought to address the issue by gathering input from an array of sources, some of which had conflicting goals. And yet it appears that a consensus has miraculously been reached on Capitol Hill. All sides want more laws passed governing autonomous vehicles, albeit for various reasons. Consumer groups want assurances that AVs will remain safe and service as many people as possible; industry groups want a clearcut regulatory framework they can use to gradually shift test mules into products with more intellectual property protection and less red tape. 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), said the U.S. had fallen woefully behind the rest of the world — and may even be holding up development — since passing the Self Drive Act in 2017.

“China is using our infrastructure, testing on our roads, collecting information on our citizens and stealing our technology to beat us,” Rodgers said. “There is a global race to AVs. Do we want China to win that race or do we want to lead?”

Even though that race currently resembles something out of an elementary school field day, development continues and progress is being made. Congress will undoubtedly need to put more rules on the books to avoid future conflict, but it’s never really showed a robust, collective understanding of the technology. Tuesday’s hearing was supposed to help with that, but, according to Automotive News, everyone in attendance asked for rather specific items. The only overarching theme was a high emphasis placed on ensuring safety.

From Automotive News:

Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which produces the CES trade show, said those involved in developing AV technology and legislation should be focusing on “safety, empowerment and competitiveness.”

He said the lack of a national goal and an unclear sense of urgency are hindering the country’s progress.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, argued against the claim that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in advancing the deployment of AVs.

“The U.S. is not behind in other countries in allowing them to go to market, but we are behind in establishing comprehensive safeguards to ensure that this progress happens without jeopardizing or diminishing public safety,” she said.

Chase called for legislation that advances a public safety agenda — not just an economic one — and addresses a broad range of topics on safety, accessible mobility and consumer confidence.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, also called on Congress to require companies to include event data recorders in AVs to preserve information from sensors, and that every safety incident involving a self-driving vehicle be documented in a national public database.

Interestingly, there was little discussion of any negative ramifications of rampant AV deployment and widespread use of advanced driving aids. In fact, subcommittee chair Jan Schakowsky’s (D-IL) opening statements suggested that automakers leaving such technologies as expensive options (rather than standard equipment) was a problem. While she still urged caution in issuing new legislation, it had nothing to do with studies suggesting driving aids actually lower a person’s ability to act safety behind the wheel, or how fallible some of these systems can be. Her concerns were largely economic.

“More than 4.4 million americans aged 16 and over work in some capacity as drivers,” Schakowsky said. “After NAFTA was passed in 1993, which resulted in enormous job losses, the federal government had done next to nothing to support workers who were displaced and we can’t let that happen again.”

John Bozzella, CEO of the freshly formed Alliance for Automotive Innovation lobby, said Congress need to act swiftly, adding that the success of autonomous vehicles relied “on a robust federal safety agency, increased public awareness and education, and coordination between federal, state and local government.” But he also said each group needs clearly defined roles, with whatever legislation comes next having enough flexibility to change as the technology evolves.

Bozzella also said the best path to modernizing our roadways was to continue exempting AVs from existing safety standards, something Ms. Chase disagreed with. Existing regulations only require automakers to submit voluntary safety reports as they each run thousands of test vehicles on public roads. Saying it’s more than the government could possibly keep tabs on, she believes the ramp-up to 100,000 AVs per company, while not having to adhere to the same standards as regular cars, totally fails to address public safety.

“We’re talking about a lot of vehicles right now that are going to be exempt from federal motor vehicle safety standards. I don’t want to be on the road with cars exempt from these safety standards. In fact, we offer there should be many more safety standards,” Chase explained. “We’re talking about minimum performance standards. If a company cannot comply with a minimum performance standard, then the vehicle should not be on the roads.”

Check the entire hearing out for yourself:


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15 Comments on “Something to Agree On: Everyone Wants More Autonomous Vehicle Legislation...”

  • avatar
    R Henry

    Let’s start at the beginning. When there is a collision, who will be responsible?

    • 0 avatar

      If the offending feature cannot be disabled (as a factory option/setting) – the manufacturer.
      If the offending feature can be disabled (as a factory option/setting) and was disabled – the vehicle operator.
      If the offending feature can be disabled (as a factory option/setting) and was NOT disabled – the vehicle operator.

      • 0 avatar

        Self driving vehicles are a lawyers wet dream wrapped in a litigation nightmare.

      • 0 avatar
        R Henry


        An Autonomous Vehicle has no “operator,” that is the point. As such, I don’t understand your position here.

        Are you referring to “Advanced Driver Aids?”

        Big difference.

        • 0 avatar

          IMO, I think the statements apply to both. In both cases, the “operator” has made a choice to relinquish (differing levels of) control of the vehicle. The only difference is that an autonomous vehicle passenger made the choice when they entered and/or purchased the vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve said this 10 years ago. One day one judge will award $10mil to someone killed by autonomous vehicle and this will be done. May be wee need to sacrifice a school bus full of children once.

      I want only 1 single and very short law – autonomous vehicles are banned on public roadways.

      • 0 avatar
        Matt Posky

        Accountability came up a few times (but was hardly the focus). Those lobbying for automakers and tech firms are all about nixing steering wheels/pedals and making exemptions to existing safety standards, but they had to punt on most questions about who becomes liable. Bozzella came pretty close to addressing it directly, saying that AVs will continue crashing once in a while but the pursuit of safer, self-driving vehicles was too important to postpone.

        Meanwhile, consumer advocates were all about holding manufacturers responsible any time an AV crashes — the gist being: if the driver doesn’t have to drive, they aren’t responsible for what happens.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry, but we’ve been down this road before – with airbags. There were issues when they were first developed, and there were lawsuits. Even when the driver was clearly at fault, the manufacturers paid out. We still have airbags.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      This is why “Self Driving” cars will continue to have steering wheels and other controls. They can’t hold you responsible if something goes bad and there was no way for you to prevent it…and rest assured, YOU will be held responsible when something goes bad.

      That and too many municipalities and governments depend on aggressive enforcement to meet their budgets. Can’t have that go away.

      • 0 avatar
        R Henry

        If this turns out to be true, we will never have truly “autonomous” vehicles. I am fine with that.

        Thing is, as the Tesla Auto-Pilot involved collisions have so clearly illustrated, high level usage of “advanced driver aids” have the undeniable tendency to cause drivers to pay less attention to driving than they should. In this regard, these “advanced driver aids” are quite the opposite–they serve to HINDER road safety!

  • avatar

    OMG China is beating us …. in this race for the Darwin award.

    I’m good with losing.

  • avatar

    Sooner or later we will have to introduce basic income benefit for all those displaced by robots. Robots are much more efficient than humans and it will result in more prosperity for everyone not less.

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