Congress is rekindling pressure to allow thousands more autonomous vehicles on the road


Robot cars are back in the spotlight on Capitol Hill after previous efforts failed to pass comprehensive legislation enabling more autonomous vehicles on the road.

US Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and John Thune (R-SD) plan to introduce an amendment to a funding law that would empower federal regulators to exempt tens of thousands of vehicles from the requirements to have traditional controls for human drivers , according to Reuters.

The amendment would empower the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to exempt 15,000 vehicles per manufacturer from certain safety standards, increasing that number to 80,000 in three years. The effect would be to give carmakers such as Ford and General Motors, as well as technology companies such as Google and Amazon, more leeway to produce and deploy vehicles that do not have traditional controls such as steering wheels, pedals and side mirrors.

Today, the NHTSA is only allowed to allow 2,500 waivers per manufacturer. The agency handed out its first autonomous vehicle exemption in early 2020 to a California-based company called Nuro.

The autonomous car industry praised the amendment’s introduction. A group called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which includes Uber, Lyft, Volvo, Ford and Waymo as members, said it “welcomes Senators Peters and Thune’s amendment to encourage testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the US. support”. “Paves the way for AV technology to save lives, unlock new economic and mobility opportunities, and advance American leadership and innovation in this globally competitive arena,” Ariel Wolf, general adviser to the coalition, said in a statement.

But some security groups say the amendment falls short in the same way as previous legislation, such as the AV START bill, which died after not gathering enough support in the Senate. They, along with litigation attorneys and some local officials, argue that the technology is not ready for prime time and want Congress to allow NHTSA to demand more data from autonomous vehicle operators, such as crash reporting and disabling the self-driving software. The litigation attorneys, who have a hugely powerful lobby group, have been blamed in front of sinking of the previous attempt to pass legislation.

“The amendment does not provide consumer protection and instead essentially creates an accelerated process for manufacturers to confirm that their driverless car is no safer than the least safe vehicle on the road, before they are allowed to sell tens of thousands of them and lose them in our neighborhoods, ”said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, in an email. “Opening the door to more unregulated testing and under-regulated sales without a strong oversight mandate is not a way to reinforce the diminished public confidence in driverless technology.”

Cathy Chase, executive director of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the amendment was “alarming,” and she opposed the attempt to pass the legislation as an amendment rather than a law in its own right.

The Peters-Thune Amendment would be added to the Endless Frontier Act, a $ 100 million bill that aims to increase investment in science and technology to compete with China and other countries. Peters and Thune hope to get approval from the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday if they consider the bill. The Biden government has expressed support for the Endless Frontier Act, but not specifically for the autonomous vehicle legislation.

News of the new amendment comes during a week when two other Senate members, Ed Markey (D-MI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), have called for a robust investigation into a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S in which no one was behind the wheel.