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Detroit Free Press: Congress looking to clear hurdles to self-driving cars

WASHINGTON – The Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate commerce committee and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan said today they plan to work together to develop regulatory flexibility for the auto industry in its drive to create self-driving vehicles, with an eye toward proposing legislation this year.

Peters and U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota issued a statement saying that Congress needs to “assist innovators in bringing this new technology to our roads” by rewriting policies that maintain safety but still allow room for self-driving technology to reach its “full potential.”

Thune chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees federal auto regulators. Peters is a member of the committee and has promoted legislation allowing states to invest federal funds in projects that allow vehicles to share information with infrastructure, such as roads, which is a step toward autonomous vehicles.

“More than any other automotive technology in history, self-driving vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce the more than 35,000 lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around,” the two said in their statement. While they didn’t propose specific legislation, they said they will be looking to create regulatory flexibility for new cars while navigating a thicket of existing regulations intended to keep drivers safe.

“Many current federal vehicle safety standards reference placement of driver controls and other systems that assume a human operator. While these requirements make sense in today’s conventional vehicles, they could inhibit innovation or create hazards for self-driving vehicles,” they said. “Left on its own, the slow pace of regulation could become a significant obstacle to the development of new and safer vehicle technology.”

Peters and Thune said they are “particularly interested” in developing ways to provide testing and development of self-driving vehicles while leaving regulations on conventional autos in place. That, however, means working closely with regulators and auto companies as well as meshing their worth with those of state laws and regulators. They said they hope to propose a joint bill this year.

The statement by the two comes as Congress is taking an ever-greater look at the potential for self-driving cars. On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection is set to hear from witnesses in a hearing called “Self-Driving Cars: Road to Deployment.”

Among the scheduled witnesses is Mike Ableson, General Motors’ vice president of global mobility strategy, who, according to his prepared testimony, is expected to discuss how self-driving cars will be able to reduce crashes and provide greater mobility to disabled persons or those with limited access to public transportation.

"Current (vehicle regulations) have served the motoring public well for years. However, as technology has evolved, standards, which take years to develop, have lagged behind,” Ableson said in his prepared testimony. “Without changes to those regulations, it may be years before the promise of today’s technology can be realized.”