WASHINGTON -- The House appears close to reviving a debate over whether to regulate the driverless vehicle industry, but all of the concerns that torpedoed past efforts remain: Namely, how best to balance safety of new technology and the freedom to innovate.
Though a GOP-led House in 2017 passed by voice vote a bill aimed at creating a regulatory framework for the self-driving car industry, a Senate version of the bill died in 2018, largely over Democrats' concerns about the safety of the burgeoning technology.
Now, the debate is back with an added level of urgency. In the absence of congressional action, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Transportation Department office tasked with overseeing highway safety, last week allowed California-based Nuro to deploy up to 5,000 driverless, electric delivery vehicles.
Separately, the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency responsible for transportation accident investigations, on Tuesday released public dockets on two fatal Tesla crashes that involved the vehicles' "autopilot" systems. The federal government has offered voluntary guidance on autonomous vehicles but no rules on the technology.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are increasingly concerned that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge to China and other nations in developing the technology.
"The cost of inaction is clear," said House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore., at a Tuesday hearing of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. "We're falling behind."
Walden and other advocates say the technology will be a life-saver, preventing many of the roughly 37,000 U.S. vehicle deaths that occur each year. Ninety-four% of those accidents, safety officials say, are caused by human error.
"An automated vehicle can't drive distracted. It can't drive impaired or fall asleep at the wheel," said John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.
Any delay in that deployment, argued Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, means more traffic deaths.
"Every day we delay, we're literally killing people," he said.