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Republicans want to open U.S. roads for companies testing self-driving cars

It’s one of 14 bills that House lawmakers debated Tuesday.

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Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (L), top Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone (R)
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Greg Walden recently was riding comfortably in his Subaru Outback, the cruise control guiding his car, when a “big black bird” — a crow, he suspects — swooped down in front of him. “The car braked on its own,” the Oregon congressman recalled. “Of course, my wife woke up.” Startled in the passenger seat beside him, she asked if he was tired. She didn’t believe him when he said no.

To Walden, though, the minor incident illustrated a point. Compared to his old Dodge van, “it reacted before I reacted,” he told Recode in an interview. Braking assistance is hardly some new, gasp-inducing feature in sport-utility vehicles, but Walden said it helped crystallize for him how more-advanced technology — fully self-driving cars — might someday prevent more harrowing traffic incidents.

Fast forward to Tuesday, as a committee in the U.S. House under Walden’s watch debated a total of 14 bills that Republican lawmakers believe might someday clear the roads for more driverless vehicles. Lawmakers like Walden believe their early efforts are a boon for safety, not to mention U.S. business. “We lose 30,000 to 40,000 people a year in highway fatalities,” he explained, adding: “What can we do to set standards that will make sure that innovation is taking place in the United States?”

Chief among Republicans’ offerings is a bill that would permit the likes of Google and Uber to test their self-driving cars around the country, scrapping a current system in which states from New York to California have pitched varying, if conflicting, rules on how and where autonomous vehicles can operate. The idea is sure to satisfy the tech and auto industries, which have lobbied extensively in Washington, D.C., to push the policy boundaries for self-driving cars.

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Rep. Jan Schakowsky
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Some lawmakers, however, sounded an early note of caution Tuesday that Congress itself might be at risk of speeding. “We need to figure out a responsible way to keep innovation moving forward, while ensuring safety at every stage,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

For the moment, at least, there’s no single, overarching, autonomous-vehicle-specific law on the federal government’s books — nothing that says where companies can test their tech and what sort of safety standards might apply in vehicles that someday might not even have steering wheels.

Before President Barack Obama departed office, his administration worked with tech and car companies on a set of voluntary safety standards for driverless cars. But much remains unresolved, and in a rare break from the norm on Capitol Hill, there’s bipartisan interest in working through the issues: Senate Democrats and Republicans recently signaled they also planned to start debating self-driving car rules in the coming months.

One concern for Republicans: Lacking federal standards, 22 states have imposed some sort of regulations, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures, often in an attempt to address safety concerns with a technology they believe is in its infancy.

To Walden and his GOP colleagues, the flurry of state-level activity marks a break with a longstanding division of labor, one that sees the federal government determining national safety and driver standards while leaving only the logistics, like approving licenses, to the locals.

“From the front bumper to the back bumper — whether it’s a pickup truck or a car or a van — how the vehicle works and is designed should be the province of the federal government as has been the case for more than 50 years,” said Rep. Bob Latta, who convened the Tuesday hearing.

Preempting the states would be a boon for tech giants like Google and Uber and automakers including Ford and Volvo; one of their lobbying groups, the Self Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, offered lawmakers its stamp of approval during testimony on Tuesday.

One of its aides, David Strickland, the former director of the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, said 50 states ultimately adopting 50 different safety standards for self-driving cars would amount to a “disaster.”

But some in Congress seemed reticent to strip states’ self-driving car laws from the books. Schakowsky, for one, said Strickland’s former agency, NHTSA, needed to adopt a “federal standard” for autonomous vehicles before Congress could replace existing state safety regulations. Trouble is, that agency still has no full-time director under President Donald Trump — a fact that rankled one of Schakowsky’s colleagues, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone.

“We should not be moving bills out of the committee until we hear from the administration,” said Pallone, the committee’s chief Democrat.

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx
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Another Republican proposal would allow the government to designate as many as 100,000 self-driving cars to be exempt from existing federal motor safety rules, even though those guidelines — which govern everything from steering wheels to airbags — were written many years before that technology existed. A third would set up a federal board to study the cyber security of autonomous vehicles.

And still a fourth proposal would allow the manufacturers of those vehicles to share data, including information about crashes, with the U.S. government in a way that appears to make it impossible for reporters and watchdogs to obtain that data through record requests. There, the aim is to protect carmakers’ confidential information about their technology. To consumer watchdogs, however, it may ultimately serve to undermine the public’s trust in a technology still coming to market.

“I’m not opposed to these vehicles, I’m not opposed to testing, but we need somebody to look at this material other than NHTSA and the auto companies,” said Alan Morrison, a leading faculty member at The George Washington University Law School, during the hearing Tuesday.

Other terrain remains uncharted territory for the committee. By design, it’s a different portion of Congress that deals with heavy trucking — a major area of disruption in the realm of self-driving cars, and one that could leave many drivers out of work if companies like Uber succeed.

Nor has the committee tackled broader issues, like privacy, that affect the industry, despite the clamor from consumer protection advocates that cars, like smartphones, have become warehouses of knowledge about their owners.

And Walden said it’s too soon for Congress to wade into philosophical questions about the complex decision-making algorithms powering the forthcoming fleet of self-driving vehicles in the first place — questions like, does a self-driving Google Prius or Uber ride kill its owner in order to spare more lives?

“I think Congress will have a role in that. I think we’re a ways away from that ... When you get to the point when you have no steering wheel, I think a lot of those discussions will be had,” Walden said.

“You’re going to lose some people because of what autonomous vehicles do,” he continued. “But if you can cut that loss to a 10th or a half or name the number [from what it is now], it has to improve overall, and I think that’s what we have to keep our focus on — what’s the overall good here?”

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