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Autonomous vehicle bill heads to Senate floor; White House might be next

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 09:00
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The autonomous vehicle bill the Senate Commerce Committee passed on October 4 differs somewhat from the bill the House passed in July, but not in any highly significant way. That means Congress has the opportunity to pass, and President Trump to sign, an AV bill before the year is out.

That will be challenging because the remaining days in 2017 available for congressional action are limited, and will be consumed by actions having to do with a tax reform bill. If the bill makes it passed the Senate, it must be combined with a previously passed House bill before it can be sent to the White House for President Trump's signature.

However, consumer advocates and state motor vehicle regulators have serious concerns about the Senate bill, which was modified in committee to meet some of those concerns. The most notable controversial issues that will come up on the Senate floor are the number of exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) available to autonomous vehicle testers and the pre-emption of local and state laws. Though the Senate bill passed the Commerce Committee with strong Republican and Democratic support, some Democrats may push for additional changes on the floor and can delay and even sidetrack any legislation because of the Senate's parliamentary rules.

Various groups are picking at elements of the Senate bill. Beth Osborne, senior policy advisor for T4America, says, “The preemption language in this bill challenges their ability to regulate their own roads and, without requirements to share any data on their operations, creates a climate of secrecy around AV testing or deployment." Transportation for America (T4America) is a coalition of cities and business executives interested in advancing smart transportation.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a consumer group, released a comprehensive evaluation of the differences between the House and Senate bills, which are called the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388) and the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act (S. 1885). The Advocates' evaluation says, "While there were many changes to both the House and Senate bills during drafting and mark-ups to include some basic safety protections for the public, both bills still have substantial problems."

But any push for changes to the Senate bill will probably elicit pushback from the Auto Alliance, which represents car manufacturers. "The START Act strikes the appropriate balance between state and federal responsibilities and in the process will help create new transportation options for the disabled, conserve energy and create jobs," the Alliance says.

The aftermarket's role in the deployment of level 3, 4 and 4 autonomous vehicles – called highly autonomous vehicles by both bills – has been more or less ignored, even though retrofitting is considered critical in terms of getting a critical mass of AVs on the roads. But there is one provision in the Senate bill that was lauded by the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association. That was the amendment to create a “Highly Automated Vehicle Data Access Advisory Committee” to make recommendations to Congress with respect to “the ownership of, control of, or access to, information or data that vehicles collect, generate, record, or store in an electronic form that is retrieved from a highly automated vehicle or automated driving system.”

“Data access to the automotive aftermarket is vital to ensuring motorists retain freedom of choice for vehicle repair,” said Bill Long, president of the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association, the light vehicle aftermarket division of MEMA. “We are encouraged for this amendment. We look forward to working with the advisory committee on this important issue.”

Exemption level ceilings are sure to come up on the Senate floor. The Senate bill allows for sales starting at 15,000 HAVs in the year after the bill passes up to 40,000 in the second year and 80,000 in the third year. The House bill allows 50,000, 75,000 and 100,000. The Advocates group supports lowering the number of exempt vehicles even further and limiting the scope of exemptions to not weaken occupant protection standards. Current law allows manufacturers to seek exemptions from FMVSS for 2,500 vehicles. "Moreover, before a manufacturer is given more exemptions, it is imperative that the exempted vehicles be evaluated to ensure they perform safely and do not diminish safety, as required in the Senate bill," Advocates says.

Pre-emption language will also be a flashpoint going forward as states such as California move forward with changes to motor vehicle laws to accommodate AV testing. The preemption language in both bills ostensibly allows state and localities to regulate the things they do now, and the federal government to regulate what goes into a motor vehicle. But some observers such as the T4America's Osborne believe that the preemption language needs to be more carefully worded. She explains, "The Senate bill restricts local governments from passing or enforcing any laws that are an 'unreasonable restriction on the design, construction, or performance' of an automated vehicle. Without defining what 'unreasonable restriction' or 'performance' means, the language enables an endless series of lawsuits and leaves the management of our roads in the hands of judges."

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