Self driving car concept art

US Congress unites to green-light self-driving cars

Image credit: Dreamstime

Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives have banded together to accelerate the introduction of self-driving cars by passing a bill giving federal government authority to regulate vehicle design.

The bipartisan bill, the SELF DRIVE (Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution) Act, was passed by a two-thirds majority in a voice vote.

Recently, automakers have raised concerns that varied state regulations on autonomous vehicles could complicate the mass deployment of self-driving cars across the US.

If this bill becomes law, the federal regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, would have the authority to regulate all vehicles’ design, construction and performance. It could also exempt car manufacturers from safety requirements that are not applicable to the technology, such as basic requirement for the inclusion of pedals and steering wheels.

The bill also permits deployment of up to 25,000 self-driving cars in the first year, rising to 50,000 in the second year and 100,000 in the third year.

The Senate Commerce Committee is in the process of similar drafting autonomous vehicle legislation, although a bill has not yet been presented. If Senate joins the lower chamber in passing legislation governing the regulation of self-driving cars, the bills would need to be united and receive the presidential seal of approval before becoming law.

The regulator’s next step will be to suggest requirements automakers must adhere to demonstrate their commitment to safety and privacy.

According to a statement from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the newly-passed bill addresses “barriers that otherwise block the ability to safely test and deploy these vehicle technologies”.

Some state and local representatives have argued that the bill could prevent them from looking after their own citizens, by awarding the federal government complete control over the vehicles’ safety regulations. Individual states could still decide whether or not to permit the cars on their roads.

Although autonomous car manufacturers – beginning with Google – have tested vehicles on public roads in the US since 2010, no self-driving car is commercially available yet. It will likely be years before the federal regulator has sufficient information to begin drawing up regulations for automakers.

The WHO has reported that road accidents cause approximately 1.25 million deaths every year and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 94 per cent of road accidents involve human error. The mass rollout of autonomous road vehicles – which could communicate with each other to operate a safe distance apart – could enormously reduce the total number of road fatalities.

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