Will Partisan Bickering Slow Self-Driving Car Development?

Republicans and Democrats agree that autonomous technology is crucial, but party politics can’t become a roadblock.

By Doug Newcomb

There’s no shortage of issues for Republicans and Democrats to disagree on. But judging from the hearings this week held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which debated 14 bills that Republican lawmakers believe could clear a path for federal autonomous vehicle legislation, both parties are far apart on specific aspects of self-driving car policy.

Lawmakers do agree that they want autonomous vehicles to succeed for various reasons, not the least of which is saving some of the 30,000-plus lives lost to car accidents each year. Ohio Rep. Robert Latta, chairman of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection subcommittee, said in opening remarks that the “goal today is to enact the right policies to encourage self-driving technologies that can drastically reduce those numbers.”

Automakers, tech giants such as Waymo and Apple, and ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are battling for self-driving supremacy, and in Waymo and Uber’s case, they’re taking the fight to court. But they agree that regulation needs to come from the federal level to avoid a patchwork of state laws, and many are members — including Google and Uber — of a lobbying group with that aim.

One of the most ambitious Republican proposals seeks to allow up to 100,000 autonomous test vehicles on public roads — a steep increase from an Obama-era policy that allowed only 2,500. Republicans also want to waive safety standards, such as requiring a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals, that don’t apply to robo-taxis being developed by Ford, Waymo, and others.

Testing such large numbers of autonomous cars on public roads without safety measures in place raised concerns among Democrats and some safety advocates. And others worry that legislative gridlock in Congress over self-driving cars could prevent the U.S. from staying at the forefront of self-driving technology.

A sticking point for some Democrats is that President Trump has yet to appoint someone to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which oversees motor vehicle rules and is a linchpin in development of the self-driving car regulations. New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, for example, said none of the 14 bills should move out of committee without input from NHTSA. (No one from NHTSA attended the hearings.)

“This is a big moment for us,” Pallone said. “We need to be sure that we get this right and that safety is the first priority.”

Democrat Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is also resistant to such large-scale testing of autonomous vehicles if it involves waiving US safety rules. “We need to figure out a responsible way to keep innovation moving forward, while ensuring safety at every stage,” she said.

Alan Morrison, a law professor at George Washington University and cofounder of the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen with Ralph Nader in the 1970s, said in the hearings that he believes the proposed legislation would lead to “less safety and more preemption, all in the name of technological advancement. I think there’s a way forward,” he added, “but these bills are not it.”

In the meantime, countries including China and Germany are rapidly moving forward with autonomous testing and development, and there’s worry the U.S. could lose its leadership position in self-driving technology. “America is the true innovation leader in this field, at least for now,” said Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the car industry trade group Auto Alliance, in written testimony at the hearing. “It is in the national interest to protect that advantage.”

It’s still early in the process and a good sign that Congress is working to move federal legislation forward (the Senate is working on its own series of bills). But it’s also in the nation’s interest that lawmakers on both side of the aisle put partisan politics aside and compromise so that the U.S. isn’t left in the dust on self-driving technology.

Read more: “Feds to Self-Driving Car Developers: Show Us Your Data


Originally published at www.pcmag.com.