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Senate Democrats fight an effort to pass driverless-car bill during lame-duck Congress

Waymo driverless van
A driverless Waymo Chrysler Pacifica hybrid van drives in Chandler, Ariz.
(Caitlin O’Hara / Washington Post)
Washington Post

Senate Democrats are pushing back against attempts to pass a compromise bill in the lame-duck session that could speed the introduction of driverless cars onto U.S. roadways, saying it lacks safeguards that would protect drivers.

“Many provisions still do not go far enough to protect American consumers,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

“We can do better,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said of the bill, dubbed the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act, or AV START Act.

The fight over the bill pits some automakers, who have argued that less regulation will speed the advent of autonomous vehicles, against safety advocates and states saying the federal government should exert a firm hand in regulating the budding industry.

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The automakers’ argument: The sooner fully autonomous vehicles become widespread, the sooner the 40,000 annual traffic deaths on U.S. roads will decline. But some states and consumer advocates demur, saying that if the federal government doesn’t step in to regulate, states will need to do so, which could lead to a patchwork of rules across the country.

Their concern also reflects, in a sense, the metamorphosis of autonomous vehicles — from today’s models, with driver-assist systems that alert when a car may be in danger, to fully autonomous cars that may not need steering wheels or pedals.

There are several steps imagined between today’s models and those that no longer need a driver. Those distinctions may be glossed over by the public, which surveys show remain wary of driverless cars, after a trio of high-profile crashes this year involving the vehicles.

In March, Elaine Herzberg’s death in Tempe, Ariz., was described as “the first recorded case of a pedestrian killed by a self-driving car.” Although a driver was behind the wheel of the Uber vehicle when it struck her as she pushed her bike across a dark four-lane roadway, a video recorded inside the car showed he was inattentive during the crash, and software showed the system detected Herzberg but didn’t identify her as a person.

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Two months later, also in Tempe, a Waymo test car with a human at the wheel was involved in a crash when another vehicle swerved into it. Another Waymo vehicle that was not in autonomous mode and had an operator controlling it was in a five-car crash in nearby Mesa in June. Police said a drunk driver ran through a red light and plowed into the Waymo car and other vehicles.

After Herzberg’s death, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Congress needed to address autonomous vehicles to “update rules, direct manufacturers to address safety requirements, and enhance technical expertise of regulators.”

Despite the support of Thune, chairman of the Senate commerce committee and an author of the legislation, the bill languished in his committee as Democrats including Markey, Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) raised objections.

“We can promote innovation and usher in the era of autonomous vehicles while enhancing safety, cybersecurity and privacy,” Markey said, adding that he appreciated recent efforts to add consumer protections to the bill. “I cannot support this legislation without a meaningful sunset ensuring Congress can revisit this issue in the future and incentivizing [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] to establish and enforce safety, cybersecurity and privacy protections.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the Detroit-area co-sponsor of the Thune bill, has been making the rounds to lobby his Democratic colleagues.

“The latest draft represents progress, but my colleagues in both the Senate and House need time to more thoroughly review such a significant piece of legislation,” Blumenthal said. “While I greatly value the effort Sens. Thune and Peters have made to address my serious concerns with earlier versions, many provisions still do not go far enough to protect American consumers.”

A group representing trial lawyers — now known as the American Assn. for Justice — initially supported a GOP revision that would preserve the right to bring a legal claim under state law, making it less likely that car-crash victims would be forced into arbitration. “However, after we have had the opportunity to review the entire bill, we believe several of the new sections added will negatively impact consumer, passenger and roadway user rights if enacted,” the group said.

Opponents of the bill also object to provisions that would prevent NHTSA from recalling cars based on safety reports submitted by automakers. And they fear that a provision banning the Department of Transportation from releasing trade secrets would prevent disclosure of vital safety information.

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“Every single aspect of an autonomous vehicle is going to be deemed to be proprietary,” said a Capitol Hill staff member familiar with the bill, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly about the sensitive negotiations.

A memo being circulated on the Republican side offers several compromises intended to placate those who object to the bill.

The memo, obtained by the Washington Post, proposes creation of a highly-automated-vehicle advisory council to review safety, labor and environmental impacts. It clarifies the roles of state and local governments to enforce laws on the operation of motor vehicles. It would allow the secretary of Transportation to keep setting and updating vehicle safety standards.

The original bill would increase the number of exemptions automakers could get from traditional federal safety standards, upping the number to 80,000 “highly automated vehicles” a year from 2,500. The staff memo of proposed amendments specifies that exempt vehicles “must maintain the same overall safety level, occupant protection level, and crash avoidance level” as any other car.

The memo also seeks to quiet concerns raised by Herzberg’s death, stipulating that autonomous cars must “identify, detect and respond” to pedestrians and bicyclists. It adds a requirement that driver-assisted cars, known as Level 2 vehicles, report their crashes and educate the public about what they can and cannot do.

The memo also says the National Institute of Standards and Technology should consider the cybersecurity and privacy concerns expressed by carmakers and the public.

Halsey writes for the Washington Post.


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