Self-driving cars are zooming at breakneck speed toward America’s roadways, and Washington is finally reaching for its seatbelt.
For years, the race to create fully autonomous vehicles went mostly unnoticed by federal lawmakers, who tended to speak of self-driving cars (if they spoke of them at all) as something out of “The Jetsons.” It was an odd blind spot, given how close companies in Silicon Valley and Detroit were to creating mass-market autonomous vehicles, and how many important industries — taxi driving, long-haul trucking and shipping among them — stood to be drastically transformed as a result.
But now, lawmakers are taking cautious steps toward the driverless future.
On Wednesday, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee voted to advance a bill that would speed up the development of self-driving cars and establish a federal framework for their regulation. The bill, known as the Highly Automated Vehicle Testing and Deployment Act of 2017, is the first major federal effort to regulate autonomous vehicles, and would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration broad oversight of the self-driving car industry. A full committee vote on the measure is expected next week, and the bill could go before the entire House this fall.
The Senate is also playing catch-up. Last month, a bipartisan group of senators announced that it was working toward its own version of an autonomous vehicle bill, which would prioritize “safety, fixing outdated rules, and clarifying the role of federal and state governments” in regulating self-driving cars. Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, is working on the bill with two Democratic senators, Gary Peters of Michigan and Bill Nelson of Florida, and said he expected to release a draft of proposed rules this month.
It’s rare to find an issue with true bipartisan consensus in Washington. But self-driving cars have been praised by members of both parties, who see the technology as a way to spur job creation while preventing many of the roughly 40,000 motor vehicle deaths that occur on American roads each year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 percent of traffic deaths involve human error, including distracted driving and driving while intoxicated.
Self-driving cars would obviate those problems, even if they would introduce new fears. (One well-publicized accident, a fatal 2016 crash involving a Tesla that was set to “autopilot” mode by its owner, sparked worries among regulators, who later concluded that Tesla’s driver-assistance system was not to blame for the accident.)
Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who supports the House’s self-driving car bill, told me that lawmakers had been prompted to act by concerns about economic competitiveness, in addition to the promise of safer roads.
“These vehicles are going to be developed, and I want to make sure we’re developing them in this country, not China, India or the European Union,” said Ms. Dingell, a former auto lobbyist and General Motors executive whose district includes the headquarters of Ford Motor Company. “The challenge for this country, period, is how we stay at the forefront of innovation and technology.”
While not yet commercially available, self-driving cars are being tested in several states, and semi-automated cars capable of piloting themselves on the highway, such as Tesla’s Model S, are already on the roads. Some experts predict it could be a decade or longer until cars are capable of full autonomy in every driving condition, but several major auto manufacturers, including Ford and Toyota, say they’re on track to release cars capable of limited autonomy within the next four years.
In the absence of federal guidance, many states have started developing their own laws for self-driving cars. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles recently released a series of proposed rules, and the state is beginning to modify its roads to make them easier for the sensors in autonomous vehicles to analyze. Michigan passed a package of bills last year that made it easier for auto manufacturers to experiment with self-driving cars on public roads. And Florida passed a law that legalized truly self-driving cars, with no human operator behind the wheel.
While engineers race to bring self-driving cars to market, Silicon Valley companies and Detroit automakers have been lobbying Congress for federal laws that would replace many of the existing state-by-state regulations and allow them to experiment more freely with new autonomous systems. Ford, Google, Uber, Lyft and Volvo have teamed up to form the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an industry group that has pressed for a clear set of national standards.
Regulating self-driving cars is a tricky balancing act. Crack down too hard, and you risk stalling the development of a potentially lifesaving technology. Go easy, and you risk letting unsafe vehicles onto public roads before they’re adequately tested. There are cybersecurity risks to address, too, since autonomous vehicles will be connected wirelessly to the internet and could be susceptible to hacking. The House bill would require manufacturers of new autonomous systems to submit security plans for their self-driving cars, as well as meet basic safety standards.
Many states have opted for a permissive stance on self-driving cars, hoping to land a piece of an emerging multibillion-dollar industry. Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, recently told a National Governors Association meeting that within 10 years he expected “almost all” new cars produced in the United States would be fully autonomous.
Making people comfortable with robotic chauffeurs, of course, is another matter. According to a poll conducted this year by AAA, 78 percent of drivers in the United States are afraid to ride in a self-driving car, and 54 percent would feel less safe sharing the road with one.
“People want to feel like they’re in control of their destiny,” said Elliot Katz, a lawyer at DLA Piper who works on self-driving car issues. Mr. Katz said federal regulation could help convince consumers that autonomous vehicles are safe.
“We need rules and regulations so that the driving public knows this isn’t just the Wild West,” he said.
Right now, the benefits of self-driving cars are clear and concrete — fewer traffic deaths, easier commutes, the ability to safely use your phone while you drive — while the costs remain largely theoretical. But experts have warned that the self-driving car revolution could usher in sweeping economic changes, including the displacement of millions of workers. Roughly 1.7 million Americans drive long-haul trucks for a living, and another 1.7 million people drive taxis, buses and other commercial vehicles. When autonomous vehicles render many of those jobs obsolete, politicians will have a much bigger set of problems to contend with.
“Governments have largely focused on the legality of automated driving,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who focuses on autonomous driving. “They should also pay attention to the broader challenges and opportunities of automated driving — what it means for our lives, our governments, our land use, our cities, our social services, our jobs and how we live.”
The politics of autonomous driving will almost certainly become messier as self-driving cars edge closer to widespread use. There will be safety and security worries, intra-industry squabbles and backlash from driver unions concerned about job loss. The self-driving car could become a politically polarizing symbol, with some Americans cheering it as a technological miracle and others viewing it as a nanny-state intrusion into individual liberty. It’s not hard to imagine that one day a politician might run for office on a “Make America Drive Again” platform.
But for now, as self-driving cars peek over the horizon and gridlock seizes Capitol Hill, lawmakers just seem happy to have found something — anything — to agree on.
“It’s sexy, and that carries issues a long way,” Mr. Smith said of the self-driving car movement. “A hot, potentially even bipartisan subject can be more appealing than the mundane.”