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Draft of bipartisan driverless car bill offered by House panel

Bipartisan, bicameral bill authors try to avoid pitfalls that brought down previous attempts to get a federal handle on autonomous vehicle oversight

An Optimus Ride employee sits in the driver seat as he monitors the company's six-seater shuttle bus as it drives through the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
An Optimus Ride employee sits in the driver seat as he monitors the company's six-seater shuttle bus as it drives through the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)

Days after reviving the debate over how to regulate the driverless vehicle industry, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is circulating draft legislation for that oversight.

The discussion draft, obtained by CQ Roll Call, is bipartisan and bicameral and aimed at ironing out legislative differences up front in order to avoid the fate of a similar bill that stalled in 2018. An email sent out with the bill requests feedback from stakeholders by Feb. 21 on sections regarding cybersecurity, consumer education, inoperative controls, resources, staffing, crash data and truck savings. 

The committee previously released draft sections on federal, state and local roles, exemptions, rulemakings, FAST Act testing expansion, advisory committees and definitions. 

While much of the substance of the draft bill seems settled, some holes remain. For example, the bill sets out extensive requirements aimed at protecting the vehicles from hacking. But the writers have yet to decide whether to bar manufacturers from selling any vehicle without cybersecurity protections or simply those with automated features.

The bill also asks the Department of Transportation to study how to educate consumers about what their automated cars can do. But it hasn’t yet determined the parameters of such education.

[House revives debate over regulation of autonomous vehicles]

And while both sides agree that the secretary of Transportation needs additional staffing to handle specifics, the draft does not specify the minimum level of staff. Nor does it include a dollar amount to be authorized for that oversight. 

In the air

The bill also remains silent on whether to bar manufacturers from implementing forced arbitration clauses so that those injured in such crashes are prohibited from suing. That topic appeared to be a major point of contention during a hearing on driverless vehicles earlier this week, but the sole reference to arbitration in the discussion draft says language on that provision is “to be supplied later.”

Two organizations that sent witnesses to this week’s House Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing on the technology — the Alliance for Automotive Innovation and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety — declined to comment on the draft, saying they were reviewing it.

A GOP-led House in 2017 passed by voice vote a bill to at create a regulatory framework for the self-driving car industry. A 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 additional urgency: 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.

And 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 Department of Transportation has offered voluntary guidance on autonomous vehicles but no rules on the technology, and the debate has boiled down to whether to keep a light-touch regulatory framework on the vehicles in order to encourage innovation, or to impose more safety requirements to protect the public as the technology develops.

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. 

But the flip side is a series of high profile fatal accidents involving autonomous vehicles, including the two Tesla crashes and a 2018 accident in Arizona where a pedestrian was hit and killed by a self-driving Uber car.

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