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Makers of driverless cars want Congress to free them from state safety standards

Eliza Fawcett, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- As Silicon Valley and automakers attempt to steer the nation toward a future of driverless vehicles, a group of influential lawmakers remains concerned that bipartisan legislation now moving through Congress could leave consumers at risk by preventing states from demanding tighter safety regulations.

The House passed a bill last fall and similar legislation is pending in the Senate. Both aim to boost the driverless car industry by streamlining rules and preventing states from imposing their own safety and performance standards.

But consumer advocates and a group of lawmakers including Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts are worried that the current proposals don't go far enough to protect consumers from accidents and other dangers.

The consternation over the legislation highlights Congress' persistent challenge in keeping up with the innovation economy. As lawmakers spar about how to regulate autonomous vehicles, Silicon Valley and the rest of the world are racing ahead with developments. Driverless cars have already been cruising through select cities on test runs.

As testing has expanded, so have the risks. The first pedestrian fatality caused by a driverless vehicle occurred in March, when Elaine Herzberg was fatally struck by an Uber operating on self-drive mode in Tempe, Ariz.

Sponsors of the House and Senate measures are mostly from automotive states such as Michigan and Ohio, and they are eager to anchor the emerging autonomous vehicle industry in their regions. They warn the U.S. could fall behind other nations.

"It's being built in China, it's being built in India, it's being built in Western Europe," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of the SELF DRIVE Act, at a recent forum at George Washington University. "If we want to make sure that we are staying at the forefront of innovation, we've got to be doing the same thing."

The two pending measures would clear a path for industry, largely pre-empting state regulation of autonomous vehicles, and allow for the development of federal guidelines. But with little indication that the federal government will create a regulatory apparatus in the near future, consumer advocates are concerned that the bills will leave the industry without sufficient consumer protections.

"These vehicles need to come under regulatory oversight, and right now the Department of Transportation really doesn't have the technological capability to set such standards and develop rules for manufacturing," said Jack Gillis, president of the Consumer Federation of America.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not have a specific timeline for federal regulations for driverless cars, although the agency is working with Congress and automakers toward that end, according to Kathryn Henry, an agency spokeswoman. The 2019 Transportation Department budget includes $21 million for NHTSA rule-making programs that include "efforts to facilitate the development of autonomous vehicles by reducing regulatory barriers to technology innovation."

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