Industry calls on lawmakers to re-examine rules for self-driving cars

A mishmash of government rules, some of which are outdated, could slow adoption of new self-driving car technology that’s seen as a possible boost to the economy, an auto industry representative told lawmakers Tuesday.

Senators were examining whether the federal government is keeping up with changes in transportation technology, such as the possibility of self-driving cars. Supporters argue that the technology could improve auto safety while saving drivers billions of hours a year in lost productivity.

“The technology is leading the society,” said Susan Alt, senior vice president of public affairs for Volvo Group North America, which produces trucks used in shipping. Alt called for standardizing state-level regulations, saying that discrepancies could slow widespread adoption of the technology.

“Though our products roll across state lines, different states are developing different regulations to promote autonomous vehicle testing,” she warned. “We’ll need a national standard before these vehicles can become operational.”

Estimates vary, but many analysts say the technology for self-driving cars will be available soon. Nissan, for example, has projected it will have the technology ready for consumers by 2020.

Existing regulations may also need to be adapted to situations involving self-driving vehicles, Alt noted. The concept of a driver, for example, could apply to the person in the car or the machine system itself, depending on the situation. According to a 2014 law review article by Bryant Walker Smith, an affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, many states have rules that do not have a clear interpretation for self-driving cars. New York state law, for example, requires a driver to keep a hand on the wheel, Smith wrote.

Eventually, however, analysts say self-driving cars could be a boon for the economy. According to an estimate from Morgan Stanley, widespread adoption of autonomous cars could contribute $1.3 trillion in savings to the U.S. economy and save the 75 billion hours Americans spend driving each year. Advocates also predict they will reduce the number of automobile accidents.

The hearing also touched on other new applications of technology to transportation safety, such as the use of drones to inspect railway tracks for defects.

“Government is generally reactive rather than proactive,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). “Today’s hearing is an opportunity to look into the future and to identify ways to make innovation easier.”

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