WASHINGTON -- Bipartisan legislation to promote safe development of autonomous vehicle technology remains stalled in the Senate over safety concerns from three Democrats, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune said Wednesday.
Proponents are looking for an expedited way to get the AV START Act through a crowded Senate calendar for a vote, but a "hold" placed on the bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is preventing consideration by unanimous consent.
California's senior senator has concerns about the overall safety of self-driving cars and whether the technology is ready to be placed on public roadways, said Thune, R-S.D.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has expressed concern about the need to require a fallback mechanism for a driver to take control of a vehicle in case of software failure, while Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., is concerned about data privacy and cybersecurity as vehicles evolve into smart devices that can access a user's information for infotainment, shopping and other purposes.
"A lot of testing is going on in her (Feinstein's) state, so I'm hoping folks will eventually be able to prevail on her to realize that this is eventually going to make roads safer, not less so," Thune told reporters after chairing a field hearing on self-driving cars held in conjunction with the Washington auto show.
If all senators agree to support a piece of legislation, it can be adopted without a floor vote, but it only takes one objection to kill such a request and retain normal protections for the minority party.
Thune said he has talked with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about scheduling floor time for a vote or hitching autonomous vehicle legislation to, for example, a potential infrastructure bill. A stand-alone vote could require up to a week of Senate time to go through procedural steps, but the Senate's priorities in the next month include passing government funding and an immigration bill.
Thune said he hopes to accommodate the issues raised by the three Democrats "as long as it doesn't move it too far into a more regulatory, sort of heavy government direction."
The Senate bill notably bars states from imposing restrictions on autonomous vehicle safety performance and development, allows automakers to win tens of thousands of exemptions from safety rules that require human controls, and sets privacy requirements for disclosing how collected data is used. Automakers and tech companies will be required to regularly report how they are working to meet safety standards, but there are no specific mandates on how to do so.
Industry supports the light regulatory touch, saying it is necessary to encourage investment in technology, while public-interest groups say the public is being put at risk without sufficient safeguards.
"We think that NHTSA working with people who are designing these vehicles and understand these technologies are better equipped than us in Congress trying to prescribe a particular technology," Thune said. "They are in a better position to make those decisions in working with the regulators."
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the lead Democrat crafting the bill, added: "The quicker we get this done the better because the faster we get the technology developed, the faster we start saving thousands of lives on our highways."
Thune expressed hope that trucking would eventually be regulated for autonomous driving but acknowledged trucks would not be included in the current bill because of Democratic backing by labor unions, who fear robot trucks would cost commercial driving jobs.
The House version of self-driving legislation also didn't address trucks because trucking is not under the jurisdiction of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which wrote the bill.
"Eventually this has to be part of the overall equation. You can't have two safety standards out there on the highway," Thune said.
"There's lots of support for this bill. We listened a lot to stakeholders, worked with trial lawyers on liability issues, and clarified state and federal roles. I think we've got it to a point where it's a good, balanced bill. So I don't know why we shouldn't be able to get this across the finish line," Thune said.