WASHINGTON -- The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday unanimously approved bipartisan legislation that would for the first time govern the manufacturing, testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles.
The primary amendments from last week's version passed by the Digital Commerce subcommittee are a narrowing of language pre-empting states from regulating design and performance standards, and a four-year phase-in period for automakers seeking exemptions from federal motor vehicle safety standards to deploy test vehicles on public roads.
Under the legislation, called the Self Drive Act, exemptions would start at 25,000 vehicles per manufacturer in the first year, 50,000 vehicles in year two and 100,000 vehicles each in years three and four. Current regulations allow manufacturers to apply for 2,500 exemptions per year. The subcommittee bill would have allowed automakers to deploy 100,000 vehicles per year for five years, as long as they provided equivalent levels of safety with manually controlled vehicles.
"Our aim was to develop a regulatory structure that allows for industry to safely innovate with significant government oversight -- as safety must be the chief priority," Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., said in opening remarks.
Public interest organizations acknowledged the legislation is an improvement from earlier language but complained it doesn't go far enough to ensure the safe interaction of autonomous and human-driven vehicles.
In a letter to committee members, a coalition of safety groups said states should not be restricted from establishing rules of the road for autonomous vehicles until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issues driverless vehicle regulations. They also reiterated concerns about the number of exemptions and that exemptions should not apply to crashworthiness standards.
The bill also represents a compromise to satisfy auto dealers' concerns about franchise laws and how they apply to the sale or servicing of self-driving vehicles.
The bill includes new language requiring automakers to develop plans for protecting consumers' data privacy since autonomous vehicles will collect and transmit massive amounts of data to facilitate safe operation and offer entertainment options for occupants.
The legislation requires NHTSA to mandate that automakers provide safety assessment certifications within two years. The earlier version of the bill ordered a rule within 30 months.
The bill directs the Department of Transportation to review whether to update safety standards for headlamps and develop a rule within two years for all new passenger vehicles to include a rear-seat occupant alert system to prevent young children being forgotten in car seats and dying of heat exposure.
Supporters of the Self Drive Act hope to get the legislation on the House's crowded fall schedule for debate on the floor, but it will have to compete with issues such as raising the federal debt ceiling, tax reform and appropriations bills for 2018.