By Mark Pratzel on September 8, 2017

On September 6, 2017 the House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 3388, also known as the “Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act,” also known as the “SELF DRIVE Act.” The broad, bipartisan support for this legislation seems to reflect a rare Congressional consensus favoring national standards for autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.

The Act would allow automakers to obtain exemptions to each test up to 25,000 AVs yearly without meeting existing auto safety standards in its first year, rising to 100,000 over a three-year period to permit testing in the field and data collection to guide future research and development. Most importantly, the Act would bar states from imposing their own rules related to the design, manufacturing and performance of AVs.  States could still control registration, licensing, liability, insurance, safety inspection, and regulation of auto dealerships selling AVs, but could not establish non-Federal AV performance standards.

According to the bill’s sponsors, GOP Representatives Greg Walden and Bob Latta, the legislation is intended to more clearly define the respective Federal and State roles in the AV realm. It would establish a council to handle issues related to autonomous vehicles, update the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to address advances in technology and evolution of highly automated vehicles, and maximize opportunities for research and development nationwide.  The bill would also require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to promulgate regulations governing AVs on a national basis.  “Our aim was to develop a regulatory structure that allows for industry to safely innovate without significant government oversight,” said the sponsors.  “We are beginning to unlock the full potential of self-driving cars to make roads safer, create new economic opportunities and help seniors and those with disabilities live more independently.”

Automobile industry representatives have generally supported the legislation as a means to ensure nationwide standards for AV technology and to preempt individual State action in the field, such as by California, which is developing more restrictive requirements and standards. The bill emphasizes the need for uniformity across state lines with respect to autonomous vehicle laws, providing certainty for manufacturers and ensuring that all AVs must comply with a single, uniform set of requirements.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded passage, and General Motors called it “good progress toward a law that will facilitate realization of the safety, mobility and environmental benefits of self-driving vehicles.”

Perhaps predictably, some consumer groups have opposed this approach. Consumers Union asserted that lawmakers should have imposed stronger safety regulations on driverless vehicles. Consumer Watchdog privacy director John Simpson asserted that preempting State action “leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories.” The National Governors’ Association has also opposed the legislation, asserting that it could create a “safety vacuum” on the nation’s roads and highways. And labor leaders have expressed concerns about the implications for jobs in trucking and other industries.

Senators John Thune, R-S.D. and Bill Nelson, D-Fla. of the Senate Commerce Committee have been working on their own bill, and have announced plans to hold a hearing on September 13. Lobbying efforts by consumer groups, State interests and unions may shape Senate action. Nonetheless, industry pressure, the accelerating pace of AV technology development, and growing public awareness of and interest in the potential uses and benefits of AV cars are likely to increase pressure for Congressional action to govern this rapidly advancing technology.