Tech companies and automakers working on self-driving cars appear to be getting what they want from Congress: a loose approach to regulation that takes cities and states out of the picture.
Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a rare bipartisan bill, by unanimous vote: the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution, or SELF DRIVE Act. Doris Matsui, a Democrat from California, said the law “puts us on a path towards innovation which, up until recently, seemed unimaginable.”
So far, autonomous vehicle policy has been a patchwork affair. Twenty-one states have passed laws permitting and regulating them to various degrees. In December, the California Department of Motor Vehicles—which has issued permits to more than 100 self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads—threatened to sue Uber over an unregistered autonomous vehicle trial in San Francisco, during which at least one of the company’s cars ran a red light. Uber withdrew, but it simply took the cars to Phoenix, where Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, made a show of welcoming the innovation.
The SELF DRIVE Act—and its Senate equivalent, which is being revised now—set the country on a wait-and-see path toward autonomous vehicle oversight, with Washington taking control from the states. The bill won’t require pre-market approval of new technologies. It also prohibits any state or local jurisdiction’s “unreasonable restriction on the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles” (italics mine). What constitutes unreasonable? And will cities be willing to test that language if it means entering well-funded litigation with Ford or Alphabet?
Safety advocates aren’t thrilled with it, and neither are local planners. “The bill as written undermines cities’ abilities to write and enforce traffic laws that frankly may apply specifically to [autonomous vehicles], and undermines states’ existing authority at the DMV,” says Linda Bailey, the president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. In their effort to establish federal oversight for the new tech, she says, lawmakers risk hampering the way cities manage traffic and harness autonomous vehicle data.
Stakeholders at the state level, including the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Association, say the legislation that passed the House appears to shift even the regulation of vehicle operations (i.e., speed limits and idling laws), not just design and safety standards, from states to Washington. (When operations are coded into the cars in the factory, where do you draw the line between design and actual behavior on the road?) It’s not clear whether the law would permit states to, for example, tax or outlaw the use of autonomous vehicles without passengers, which could clog up city streets.
Bena Chang is an associate transportation specialist in the city of San Jose, California, which she says is “ground zero” for autonomous vehicle technology, given its proximity to tech companies in Silicon Valley that are pioneering the technology. She’s concerned that the House bill could pre-empt local jurisdictions’ capacity to implement transportation policies like congestion pricing, dedicated lanes, and curbside regulations. There are also worries about how cities and states will be able to access AV data. “Cities are right to be somewhat concerned about the House language,” says Greg Rogers, an analyst with the Eno Center for Transportation.
In the long term, everyone agrees that Washington should regulate autonomous vehicles. Drivers cross city and state lines all the time. But in the meantime, self-driving trials remain quite localized: Uber in Pittsburgh, for example. The company has requested its AVs have access to bus lanes in the city, a type of local restriction the House bill might disallow.
“Cities must have a seat at the table in the regulation, testing and eventual deployment of AVs in complex urban environments,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement provided to Slate. “Pittsburgh is closely following the AV legislation currently under consideration by Congress. Mayors must have an opportunity to shape and direct the rules that affect our residents.”
Both the House and Senate bills direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Association to draft guidelines for autonomous vehicle safety, as it does for regular cars. It makes sense those aren’t in place already, says Rogers. “It’d be nearly impossible to create a test for AVs at this point. We can’t be prescriptive.”
But even with guidelines drafted, safety advocates have doubts about whether NHTSA’s staffing and expertise are up to the task. It took years to get the exploding Takata airbags off the road; General Motors warned staffers not to refer to cars as “rolling coffins” during its faulty ignition switch scandal. When dozens of companies are working on driverless cars, policing them from Washington is going to be all the more difficult.
Driverless cars are supposed to be much, much safer than human drivers. But to prove it? Looks like we’re going to put them on the road and see what happens.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.