On Wednesday, the House of Representatives did something that’s woefully uncommon these days: It passed a bill with bipartisan support. The bill, called the SELF DRIVE Act, lays out a basic federal framework for autonomous vehicle regulation, signaling that federal lawmakers are finally ready to think seriously about self-driving cars and what they mean for the future of the country.
“With this legislation, innovation can flourish without the heavy hand of government,” said Representative Bob Latta, the Ohio Republican who heads up the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, in a floor speech just before the SELF DRIVE Act passed by a two-thirds majority. (And no, I’m not shouting at you—it’s an acronym, for Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution.)
This seems like a good time for Congress to step in, and the famously regulation-averse tech industry has actually welcomed the legislative clarification. Self-driving vehicles have been testing on public roads since 2010, when Google hit the streets near Mountain View, California. And in the absence of congressional oversight, states have stepped in to regulate them, creating a patchwork of at least 21 different state laws and guidelines with different purposes, definitions, and priorities. This is a serious pain for the growing self-driving industry, which aspires to build cars permitted on all public roads.
The industry wants the flexibility to experiment, and it says there’s a lot at stake. This came up in every congressional floor speech on Wednesday: Nearly 40,000 people died on American roads in 2016, and the National Highway Traffic Administration says 94 percent of fatal crashes can be attributed to human error. Let’s get rid of the human, and quick, goes the logic.
But the robocar industry also argues that it’s way too early for Congress to demand strict, particular rules for the vehicles. Companies certainly aren’t selling these vehicles to the public yet, and even the largest AV player, Google’s self-driving spinoff Waymo, only has about 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans on the road (though that number is growing). In other words: There aren’t that many of these vehicles to regulate, and companies are still figuring out how they should work.
Lawmakers, for their part, hope the legislation strikes a balance between allowing tech and car companies to test whatever, wherever, and giving them enough leeway to try stuff out, collect some data, and determine the best way to operate vehicles without a driver.
“We need to give Congress credit for being both strategic and specific,” says Mark Rosekind, who headed up the National Traffic Safety Administration during the Obama administration and now oversees safety at the self-driving startup Zoox.
So what’s in the bill? And what’s next? Strap on your seatbelt, and say hello to the robot at the wheel:
One Reg to Rule Them All
First, the legislation works out a way for the federal government’s rules to trump state laws and rules. It officially gives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration power to regulate vehicle design, construction, and performance—the way it does with, well, normal cars. States still have authority over vehicle registration and licensing, but they’ll have a harder time making demands about what goes on inside the car.
Now that NHTSA officially has the power to regulate these things, the legislation gives it a set of deadlines. It has 24 months to come up with rules about what automakers need to submit to the agency to certify they’re serious about safety. And it has a year to figure out what features of a self-driving car will need performance standards. How will you know that a car’s sensor configuration—the combination of lasers and cameras that help it “see”—is safe? What about its cybersecurity fail-safes? Or the way it ensures there’s a passenger in the car before taking off? Quoth NHTSA: TBD.
Second, the legislation requires autonomous vehicle manufacturers be deliberate about the way they share their passengers’ data. Think about how much a self-driving car company could know about you: where you work, where you live, where you drop your kid off each morning, that you used to go to the gym a lot but stopped about five months ago. Some companies would like to customize these self-driving things to your driving style or preferred nondriving activity. Maybe you like a cautious approach, or to watch a certain kind of show while rocketing toward work. Consumers will probably want that info protected.
Under this bill, these companies must have “privacy plans” describing how they’ll collect, use, and store data. They’ll also have to lay out how customers will be informed about what’s happening to their data and what they can do if they don’t want it shared with anyone.
Finally, the legislation makes it a lot easier for self-driving cars to hit the road. Today, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS, for those who are hip with it) govern how vehicles are designed. And because humans drive the vast majority of cars today, the standards are created with humans in mind. Steering wheels are necessary, as are brake pedals. But a car driven by a computer wouldn’t have those features—in fact, allowing humans to intervene by grabbing the wheel could be dangerous.
Today NHTSA has the power to grant 2,500 FMVSS exemptions each year. This legislation will gradually up that number—by a lot. In year one, the federal agency could grant up to 25,000 exemptions; by year two, 50,000; and by years three and four, 100,000. Meaning: More self-driving cars testing on public roads. It’s about to get much more robot-y up in here.
Well, this is just the first half of this process. Now the Senate has to pass its own bill. Then both houses will work together to come up with compromise legislation that the president can sign. Perhaps easier said than done: A top Senate Democrat told Politico that “there are a number of differences” between the Senate’s draft and what the House just passed.
And then the biggest job of all: NHTSA will need to implement the thing. If the bill passes in its current state, the Department of Transportation and the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, will have to hit a bunch of deadlines: They have two years to come up with exactly what companies must do to get certified. They’ll have 18 months to kick off the rule-making process for privacy. They have to issue those FMVSS exemptions. And they’ll have to withstand pressure from a bunch of bickering car and tech companies to do it. It’s a big job for a department that doesn’t yet have a nominee for NHTSA administrator—but the future’s coming at it, fast.