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Federal AV legislative push stuck in neutral

3 min read

Efforts have stalled to revive federal legislation that would permit the widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Concerns over everything from safety, data transparency, roles of state and local governments and worker displacement have combined to thwart a second attempt by lawmakers to pass legislation, according to lawyers and policy experts who spoke at last week’s Automated Vehicles Symposium.

All said it was unlikely, though not impossible, that a bill could reach a vote during the current congressional session. Old disagreements have yet to be resolved, and the pandemic has captured the bulk of lawmakers’ attention.

“I don’t have much money, so I won’t put my money on a bill being done this year,” said Ron Thaniel, vice president of legislative affairs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “It’s a tough lift this Congress, and frankly, it’s looking more and more like the 117th Congress [which starts next year], as far as getting the bill done.”

Initially, Thaniel hoped legislation might be introduced by late last winter. Lawmakers had embarked on renewed efforts last August to collect feedback on legislation that ostensibly would provide a legislative framework for broad deployment of AVs. But the time frame for advancing a bill likely has passed.

At issue are some of the same disagreements that sunk the AV START Act in the Senate in December 2018. That bill would have affirmed the Department of Transportation’s traditional role in regulating vehicles from bumper to bumper and sought to preempt state laws governing autonomous driving operations. Since federal regulators have established only voluntary safety standards to date, that aspect of the bill concerned Peter Kurdock, general counsel at the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

“It’s unprecedented in our mind that the government is saying it’s not going to act; however, in the absence of regulation, states cannot act,” he said. “It was creating a dangerous regulatory vacuum in our mind.”

The comments came during the Automated Vehicles Symposium, an annual gathering — virtual this year — of industry, government and academic leaders that has become a key venue for discussing self-driving technology and transportation innovation. The event is sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Transportation Research Board.

Provisions in the AV START Act would have empowered manufacturers or vehicle operators to settle disputes with consumers via arbitration. Those brought objections from the American Association for Justice, a nonprofit advocacy and lobbying organization composed of trial lawyers. Frustrations linger.

“There’s burnout from that and a lack of trust,” said Jamie Boone, vice president of government affairs at the Consumer Technology Association. “From our perspective, we felt we got really close, and AAJ pulled the rug out from under us and kept switching positions and moving the goal posts.”

Beyond disagreements about the provisions within the old proposed bill, there were growing concerns about what it omitted — namely, provisions addressing vehicles that contain Level 2 automation, those driver-assist systems in which cars can take active control of driving but human beings remain responsible for operations.

While no fully autonomous vehicles are yet on sale to the general public, cars with driver-assist systems are, and a spate of fatal crashes have been investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“There’s a groundswell of stakeholders saying, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a lot of concern here raised by NTSB,’ and the House and Senate bills were totally silent on those issues,” Kurdock said. “Level 2 was left out of the bill, and that’s a serious concern, of course, when the recommendations from the preeminent safety investigator are being ignored.”

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