SELF DRIVE Act Passes Overwhelmingly in US House

Author: Robert Fischer, GTiMA President & Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor | Date: September 11, 2017

In today’s political climate, it’s shocking when an important bill passes in the House with a unanimous voice vote. Especially when it comes to federal regulations. But it just happened, and it’s a big deal for autonomous vehicle enthusiasts.

The Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act isn’t a law yet — it still has to make it through the Senate and, after that, the joint Congressional reconciliation process. But the Senate Commerce Committee is currently working on a similar legislative package, and previously-debated measures on the Senate floor have shown that they’re ready to pass some AV legislation. One thing’s for sure: this Congress desperately wants to find some legislation they can actually pass, and the AV bill’s broad bipartisan support makes it very likely to wind up on the President’s desk for a signature.

So what does this bill do exactly?

The quick take: Katie McAuliffe, a contributor to TheHill, put it succinctly: “The act correctly delineates the purview of federal versus state regulation for autonomous vehicles. In short, federal regulatory bodies have authority when it comes to the car, while states have authority when it comes to the driver.” That’s it in a nutshell. But let’s look a little more closely at what the newly-defined federal and state roles are and what comes next.

The new federal role: Assuming all goes as expected and a version of this bill becomes the law of the land, say goodbye to the patchwork of different state regulations for autonomous vehicle testing and manufacturing. NHTSA will be in charge of setting safety, performance, equipment and design standards for AVs, and automakers will be able to deploy up to 100,000 test vehicles apiece (read: vehicles that don’t meet federal safety standards), but only if they submit comprehensive safety assessment certifications to NHTSA and get its approval. Manufacturers will also have to develop cybersecurity measures and privacy protections.

The new state role: States will still have a lot of issues to figure out: pretty much everything that has a “human element”. The state responsibilities will include licensing, registration, insurance, qualifications for operation, law enforcement, crash investigation, congestion management and emissions inspections. They’ll also have oversight over sale, purchase, and repair of AVs.

What we’re still waiting for: Sec. Elaine Chao will release revised guidelines on AVs soon, which will update the Obama administration’s now-dated guidelines. NHTSA will also need to release AV-specific safety standards — but the position of NHTSA chief has yet to be filled by the Trump administration. (NHTSA does have acting administrators and an acting executive director in the meantime).

Some concerns remain: Axios points out that the vehicle doesn’t address autonomous trucks specifically, and could have the side effect of hastening their deployment, but that the Senate is considering holding a hearing on that issue specifically. Also noted by Axios was the lack of clarity in the government’s role enforcing standards for cybersecurity, which the House bill asks manufacturers to address — but judging by a set of bipartisan principles for AV legislation released by U.S. Senators Thune (R-SD), Peters (D-MI) and Nelson (D-FL), which names cybersecurity as one of the chief areas of concern for both parties, it seems likely that specific language will be added as the Senate takes over the effort.

And, finally, Axios raises the concern that as the 2018 midterms approach, the bipartisan spirit surrounding this measure might dissolve. While that does have a familiar ring to it, there are plenty of examples throughout recent electoral history where Congress managed to advance non-controversial legislation while it fell into gridlock on other issues. Both parties seem to be anxious to get these regulations into place, and neither party stands to gain anything but the ire of the public by choosing to slow it down. The fact that this passed the House with a unanimous voice vote speaks volumes, and it appears that the safe bet is that these proposed regulatory powers will become law before any national election approaches.

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