Congress Still Has A Shot At Getting Autonomous Vehicle Regulation Right

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Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Michigan, and Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, are proposing legislation covering autonomous vehicles be attached to an otherwise unrelated bill working its way through Congress, according to a new report. This is probably not where great public policy begins.

The amendment would let the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration exempt 15,000 autonomous cars per automaker from some safety standards, a provision that would increase to as much as 80,000 autonomous cars within a few years, per Reuters. The amendment, intended to speed the introduction of AVs, would be a part of a separate $100 billion bill aimed at boosting American research, with China in mind.

The amendment would also allow self-driving companies to disable human driving controls in vehicles when in full self-driving mode.


General Motors Co, Alphabet Inc’s self-driving unit Waymo and other automakers for years have urged Congress to make changes to facilitate the deployment of self-driving cars won U.S. roads. Current law allows NHTSA to exempt up to 2,500 vehicles per manufacturer.


If exempting more cars from safety standards sounds like a bad idea to you, well, you’re not alone. Here’s the reaction of Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, via The Verge.

“The amendment fails to provide consumer protection and instead essentially creates a fast-track process for manufacturers to attest that their driverless vehicle is no more safe than the least safe vehicle on the road today, before being permitted to sell tens of thousands of them and turning them loose in our neighborhoods,” [Levine] said in an email. “Throwing open the door to more unregulated testing and underregulated sales without a strong oversight mandate is no way to bolster diminished public trust in driverless technology.”


Even if this amendment weren’t bad on its merits, the better way to regulate autonomous vehicles would be in a bill dedicated to it. That could come in the form of something like the AV START bill, which gained some traction in Congress in 2018 before dying over concerns about safety and transparency and legal repercussions.

Such a bill was always unlikely to pass with Trump as president and a divided Congress. With Democrats again in control of both Congress and the presidency, you’d think there’d now be a slightly better chance. Perhaps it might even be as ambitious as the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which created the agency that became NHTSA. One can only dream.