Congress has a roadmap for laws on self-driving cars

June 15, 2017

Congressional leaders offered a plan this week to lay a basic framework for self-driving car testing and federal safety regulations for those cars.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee met Wednesday in Washington to discuss those issues and to hear from automotive and safety experts about the future of self-driving cars. Members of that committee offered a basic outline for potential legislation that would govern testing and technology for those cars.

More than 70 bills are winding through 30 different state legislatures regarding self-driving cars, said Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a large automaker lobby in Washington.

U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), John Thune (R-S.D.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) announced a plan to codify rules for self-driving cars that would, among other things, allow self-driving cars to travel freely without changing how they operate. Their early plans haven't materialized into a bill, and it's unclear when that may happen.

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During the hearing, Thune told the committee that Audi was preparing a Level 3-ready car for sale in the U.S.—the first Level 3 vehicle to be offered in the States. The current patchwork of laws between states regarding where and when self-driving cars may not allow a self-driven Audi A7 to cross the state line between, say New York and Massachusetts. New York requires one hand on the wheel at all times, and is one of the few states where testing for self-driving cars has been particularly onerous, said Dan Gage, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Audi's system, which it calls "Traffic Jam Pilot," would drive the 2019 Audi A8 at speeds below 35 mph, in heavy traffic, and on a divided highway. Audi's current system, equipped in some trims of the A4 and Q5, asks drivers to retain control of the car after roughly 30 seconds if no input is detected.

One of the hurdles for offering to the public Level 3 autonomous cars has been who is liable for damages if a self-driving car crashes. Several automakers have said they'll skip Level 3 in favor of Level 4 cars, which restrict driver input if sensors fail.

The proposed framework for legislation probably wouldn't directly address any insurance regulations for self-driving cars. Gage said states are currently left to set coverage limits for insurance on self-driving cars, and that the Alliance is only looking to shield manufacturers from liability from aftermarket add-ons to self-driving cars or when the self-driving features are used in a way they weren't intended.

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During testimony, Peters called the artificial intelligence (AI) being developed to drive cars one of the most important tech innovations of a generation.

"AI is our moonshot," he said.

The senators didn't announce when a bill could be brought forward, but Thune said it would be "hopefully, very soon." A similar version is planned for the House as well.

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