Congressional Quarterly: Michigan's Sen. Peters Sees Bill as On-Ramp for Driverless Cars

Sen. Gary Peters said Thursday that he and Sen. John Thune are working on a bill designed to provide a regulatory framework to encourage driverless car technology that would straddle the current regulations and those that would be needed if such cars become commonplace. 

Peters, D-Mich., said overhauling current regulations could take years and U.S. companies are competing with European and Asian rivals to develop the technology. They need regulatory flexibility, he said in an appearance at Microsoft's K Street office.

“The current regulatory framework simply doesn’t work, because it assumes a human,” he said. “So we need to rewrite all of that. But we also know that that takes years, and this technology isn’t waiting years.”

Peters, whose state is home to the big U.S. car companies, said the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards “are very prescriptive, very specific” and assume a human driver. The regulations require, for example, that cars and trucks be outfitted with brake pedals and steering wheels, though driverless models may not need those items to steer or stop. Ford Motor Co. aims to have mass-produced autonomous vehicles in 2021, he said.

Peters said overhauling those standards would be the cornerstone of his bill with Thune, the South Dakota Republican who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. But an overhaul could take years. U.S. companies racing to beat European and Asian competitors need the regulatory flexibility before the executive branch can fully update them. 

His comments are the latest indication that lawmakers may have to step into the issue of driverless cars. Several lawmakers and regulators have said they hope to let the technology develop with minimal government involvement.

The bill, to be introduced “in a matter of weeks,” Peters said, would focus on changing the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. It would also remove some regulatory barriers to testing and smaller-scale development, he said.

“The focus of the legislation is to create the space necessary for this technology to continue to move forward, as we are developing the regulatory scheme moving forward,” he said.

One transitional step would likely be to increase the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's authority to issue exemptions from the safety standards to driverless cars, said Hilary Cain, the director of technology and innovation policy at Toyota Motor North America Inc.

Current rules only allow NHTSA to issue 2,500 exemptions per year for the next two years.

“There’s discussion about whether that number needs to get increased in the interim, while NHTSA is updating the inconsistent and incompatible motor vehicle safety standards,” Cain said.

Increasing the cap on the number of exemptions would allow more testing and data collection, which could create an easier path to regulate the technology, said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation.

“It’s hard to create regulations for something that doesn’t exist, so that is the challenge in front of those senators and their staffs,” Lewis said. “The first step they’ll do is some exemptions, allow the exemption cap to increase, so that we can start really deploying and testing these kind of things.”

Lifting that cap is also key to the automotive industry because of how they envision their business models for autonomous vehicles, Lewis said. Automakers are less interested in selling a small number of vehicles to high-end consumers than they are in building fleets of self-driving vehicles to someday offer an on-demand service in a model similar to what Uber and Lyft offer, he said.

Peters said in an interview following the event that he was “disappointed” the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill (PL 115-31) included no funding for autonomous vehicle research despite President Barrack Obama’s request that $200 million go toward the effort.

Ten testing centers throughout the country could use the funding, he said. And overseas competitors are getting government support because of the competitive advantage of reaching the market first, he said.

“I see this as a strategic investment for the United States, and that’s why federal research dollars are important,” he said. “Having said that, obviously, these companies are already investing a lot of money because they realize this technology is an existential issue for them.”

If Congress can get an infrastructure initiative – spurred by President Donald Trump’s call for $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years – off the ground this year, that could present an opportunity for the federal government to invest in autonomous technology, Peters said, adding he would “work aggressively” to include autonomous vehicle research in such legislation.

By:  Jacob Fischler
Source: Congressional Quarterly