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The Senate's Driverless Car Bill Is Broadly Deregulatory and Promisingly Bipartisan. Naturally, It's Going Nowhere.

Tepid attempts at loosening federal regulations have crashed into senatorial intransigence.

Cover Images/NewscomCover Images/NewscomCongress was trying to remove roadblocks to the rollout of driverless cars. But the effort has stalled, as a once strong bipartisan consensus in favor of the technology has given way to hyperactive safety fears.

Back in September 2017, Sen. John Thune (R–S.D.) introduced the America Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act. In brief, the bill would preempt state-level vehicle design standards in favor of federal regulation, instruct federal bureaucrats to identify and repeal existing vehicle standards that are inapplicable or needlessly burdensome on the development of self-driving cars, and let the Department of Transportation grant exemptions to federal vehicle safety standards for up to 100,000 vehicles per manufacturer.

All things considered, this was a pretty sensible approach. It would allow manufacturers to bypass regulations that make no sense for driverless cars (like where steering wheels and rearview mirrors have to go) while also preventing a patchwork of state regs for vehicle design.

"If you had 50 different requirements, what would carmakers do? How would you build a car?" asks transportation analyst Baruch Feigenbaum of the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website).

It was a pretty popular approach—at first. Thune secured the co-sponsorship of two Senate Democrats, and he had the support of major auto and tech companies. A companion House bill even managed to pass by voice vote with heavy bipartisan support.

All this made the AV START Act a pretty rare gem: a broadly deregulatory bill with bipartisan and industry support and a high chance of passing.

Naturally, it's gone nowhere.

Primed to oppose the bill were groups like National Governors Association and the League of Cities, which fretted that it would do too much to limit their traditional abilities to regulate traffic and road safety.

Also opposed was Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose state already has regulations that would be preempted under the AV START Act. "I'm strongly opposed to it," Feinstein told Bloomberg in December 2017. "I do not want untested autonomous vehicles on the freeways which are complicated, move fast and are loaded with huge trucks."

Then came the now infamous incident in Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian. The car had a human driver but was operating in autonomous mode. The crash made already risk-adverse senators weary of pressing forward with the bill, and it amplified the safety concerns of its critics.

Since March, a small clutch of senators—including Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tom Udall (D–N.M.)—have managed to keep the legislation from coming to the Senate floor for a vote. (If it gets to the floor, it almost certainly will pass.) Meanwhile, Ralph Nader has savaged the bill in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, writing that it would "increase risk and recklessness and destroy the trust of the motoring public."

Feigenbaum says that Nader and other safety advocates are "trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist"—literally. They want to craft regulations for potential future safety and cybersecurity issues, rather than the problems that exist now. Trying to regulate away these potential harms risks strangling the industry in its crib, Feigenbaum says.

Nevertheless, the bill looks increasingly likely to wither on the vine. An attempt earlier this year to fold the AV START Act into a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration came to naught, as did a July letter from more than 100 organizations—everyone from General Motors and Intel to Mothers Against Drunk Driving—urging Congress to prioritize the bill.

If something like this is too deregulatory for our current Congress, it's fair to wonder what wouldn't be.

Photo Credit: Cover Images/Newscom

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  • perlchpr||

    "I'm strongly opposed to it," Feinstein told Bloomberg in December 2017. "I do not want untested autonomous vehicles on the freeways which are complicated, move fast and are loaded with huge trucks."

    Well, fortunately, no one said a goddamn thing about "untested autonomous vehicles", you mendacious cunt. Fuck. Just because you don't personally have your shitstained fingers all over the controls, doesn't mean there aren't any.

  • perlchpr||

    They want to craft regulations for potential future safety and cybersecurity issues, rather than the problems that exist now.

    To be fair, if the regs don't address computer security for computer operated vehicles, I may have to agree that the bill is incomplete. Stuff like you can do to a Jeep is bad enough.

    I mean... in an ideal world all the auto manufacturers who are trying this would just hire computer security experts to help them secure their designs from malicious attackers, just from the liability perspective. I'm not sure they can be counted on to do that in this world. :-/

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "Stuff like you can do to a Jeep is bad enough."

    Did you even bother to read that article? The hacks while potentially dangerous required a computer physically connected to the Jeep's computer from inside the Jeep's cabin. Not half the threat you imply.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    While last year's hack was done remotely, this year's required a laptop directly plugged into the Jeep's network, located just under its dashboard.

    Well researchers actually did both but then it looks like Jeep closed the loophole; so testing is being done and bugs and holes are being fixed before they reach market.

  • perlchpr||

    Yes.

    That particular hack required the installation of additional hardware to allow for remote access to the driving controls.

    Which says precisely nothing about the overall threat of remote access attacks on other, completely different vehicles in the future.

    The example was given to demonstrate the potential for the threat to be a real issue.

    But thank you for trying to imply that I'm stupid.

  • Delius||

    The problem of computer security in vehicles isn't limited to AVs. It isn't even necessarily worse for them. Including such restrictions in regulations specifically for AVs is ludicrous.

  • Rossami||

    Then if you think it's too risky, don't buy one. Don't hamstring the rest of us who rationally compare the minuscule (and dropping) risks of malicious hack against the near certainty of sleepy, distracted or otherwise impaired drivers.

    The standard is not perfect safety. The standard is to be less dangerous than the existing human drivers. That's not a very high bar to beat.

  • sarcasmic||

    Someone once told me that the purpose of legislative committees is to prevent good legislation from going up for a vote.

  • DiegoF||

    This piece is like a Reason Foundation troll to the Mises Institute crowd. It uses the stereotypical Reason obsession, self-driving cars, to beg the Federal Government to do the correct pro-business thing and use their Interstate Commerce powers to pre-empt the "patchwork of state regs" and assume the responsibiliity of regulating this emerging industry from Washington, D.C. instead of in the state governments--heeding the pleas of industry to help them, and of a helpfully provided list of Washington lobbyists, including such enduring libertarian darlings as General Motors and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. You can almost see the smoke coming out of ears in Alabama from the Beltway!

    I'm actually more on Reason's side here; I just think it's funny. And I think a libertarian publication should at least a nod to subsidiarist concerns--this coming from someone who's probably the weakest subsidiarist here. Also funny: that this plea for a naked Federal power grab from the states is coming from Thune of all people--when most Americans know him and his obscure state mostly for their twenty-year struggle pleading for the State's Right to fill their poor old empty coffers with your mail-order tax money.

  • DiegoF||

    (All we need to add to this piece is a co-authorship by ENB that now-obsolete local window-tint regulations make it dangerous to service a john properly while the pigs are out trying to hassle you.)

  • Longtobefree||

    The hodge podge of state regulations is how you prevent 'to big to fail'.
    Diane is probably still mad that not requiring a man with a red flag to proceed each car and warn the horsemen that a car is coming has created higher unemployment.

  • SIV||

    I prefer a vigilante response to the rise of robot death machines.

  • chipper me timbers||

    ", as a once strong bipartisan consensus in favor of the technology has given way to hyperactive safety fears."

    The one thing we can be sure of is that this is not what happened. I guarantee it's the competition lobby that is at work here, not 'safety fears' of which is not something congress is in the business of caring about.

  • Kevin Tyssen||

    What competition lobby? Taxi drivers maybe? All the major auto manufacturers support the bill (since they all have some degree of autonomous tech in the works)

  • Mark22||

    Self-driving cars are going to kill trucking, taxis, local transit, trains, local airlines, and a lot of housing values. Both unions, wealthy homeowners, and the politicians depending on them, are going to fight this tooth and nail.

  • Benitacanova||

    What about self-shooting guns, huh? Let's get busy people!

  • snowhawk||

    I have no problem with the driver-less car. I firmly believe that it should be tested only in the DC and Eastern Virginia areas for a minimum of five years before being tested elsewhere in the Nation.

  • Longtobefree||

    Does the congress have a committee to draft regulations to restrict the next technology before it is invented?
    Think of the time savings.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    More Graft!

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