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House revives debate over regulation of autonomous vehicles

How best to balance safety of new technology and the freedom to innovate remains a friction point

Greg Walden wearing a suit and tie
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., during a House Energy and Commerce hearing in 2019. On Tuesday he said driverless cars could be a life-saver, preventing many of the 37,000 annual U.S. vehicle deaths. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)

The House appears close to reviving a debate over whether to regulate the driverless vehicle industry, but all of the concerns that torpedoed past efforts remain: Namely, how best to balance safety of new technology and the freedom to innovate.

Though a GOP-led House in 2017 passed by voice vote a bill aimed at creating a regulatory framework for the self-driving car industry, a Senate version of the bill died in 2018, largely over Democrats’ concerns about the safety of the burgeoning technology.

Now, the debate is back with an added level of urgency. In the absence of congressional action, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Transportation Department office tasked with overseeing highway safety, last week allowed California-based Nuro to deploy up to 5,000 driverless, electric delivery vehicles.

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Separately, the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency responsible for transportation accident investigations, on Tuesday released public dockets on two fatal Tesla crashes that involved the vehicles’ “autopilot” systems. The federal government has offered voluntary guidance on autonomous vehicles but no rules on the technology.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are increasingly concerned that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge to China and other nations in developing the technology.

“The cost of inaction is clear,” said House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore., at a Tuesday hearing of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. “We’re falling behind.”

Walden and other advocates say the technology will be a life-saver, preventing many of the roughly 37,000 U.S. vehicle deaths that occur each year. Ninety-four percent of those accidents, safety officials say, are caused by human error.

“An automated vehicle can’t drive distracted. It can’t drive impaired or fall asleep at the wheel,” said John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

Any delay in that deployment, argued Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, means more traffic deaths.

“Every day we delay, we’re literally killing people,” he said.

By contrast, Democrats such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. urged the federal government to take an active role, with Pallone urging regulators to have a “hands-on” approach to the new technology.

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“Safety and deployment must come hand in hand — we cannot have one without the other,” Pallone said.

Republicans and Democrats alike say they agree on the potential of the technology: Not only would it reduce traffic deaths, but it would also allow the physically disabled, including the blind, to have increased access to transportation.

But Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, warned that the technology is not fool-proof, and the government needs to impose basic performance standards to protect those in self-driving cars.

She said while the technology “holds tremendous potential” to reduce deaths on highways “the technology isn’t ready, and neither are our roads.”

“I understand… that humans are responsible for a large amount of motor vehicles crashes,” she said. “However, who’s making the autonomous vehicles? Humans. Let’s not replace one human mistake with another.”

She compares the current regulatory system to the “wild west,” and said NHTSA will need additional authority to oversee an entire new category of vehicles.

Bozzella said NHTSA can’t know what to regulate unless it has data to help it make informed decisions. That’s why they have to encourage innovation, he said.

Other witnesses argued that any deployment must come with proper measures to ensure accountability.

Daniel Hinkle, state affairs counsel for the American Association of Justice, urged lawmakers to bar automated vehicle manufacturers from implementing forced arbitration clauses as it moved forward so that those injured by such vehicles would be able to publicly air their concerns.

The companies, he said, “are taking on the responsibility of the driver. They promised to drive safely and should be held accountable for that promise.”

But Shapiro worried that progress was being bogged down by such concerns.

“We’re fighting about things like protecting trial lawyers and other things while they’re getting ahead of us,” Shapiro said, warning “we can’t make the perfect be the enemy of the amazing and the great.”

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