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Senate Bill Seeks To Block States, NHTSA From Setting Rules For Self-Driving Cars

Republicans senators are expected to soon introduce a package of 14 bills, which seek to prevent both state and federal officials from regulating self-driving vehicles. 

The bills, which have not yet been submitted, would exempt self-driving technology from oversight and safety rules by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in up to 100,000 vehicles per manufacturer. The bills would also prevent states from setting their own standards for self-driving technology as well, according to a report by Reuters.

Under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the NHTSA regulates essentially every component of a vehicle that is introduced into the market, with the primary focus of that regulatory authority aimed at the physical components. However, as the automotive industry enters into a much more technology based era, the NHTSA has reinterpreted its jurisdiction to extend to software, including associated programs, instructions, code, and remotely accessed apps that are arguably not motor vehicle systems, parts, or components.

In April 2016, the NHTSA issued a draft Enforcement Guidance Bulletin explaining how it interprets the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act to provide the agency with authority over emerging technologies, such as software and mobile apps that are not necessarily parts of the vehicle themselves, but interact with the control and operation of the car or truck. However, the bills being introduced by U.S. House Republicans would interpret the NHTSA regulatory authority differently, stating the agency would have no regulatory authority to oversee or recall vehicles using self-driving software.

The bills are greatly in favor of the automobile industry, who would be relieved of regulatory oversight from the NHTSA when producing software designed to allow vehicles to operate without the need for human control.

Reuters reports that the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which is a group representing General Motors Co., Volkswagen AG, Toyota Motor Corp., and several other major U.S. automobile manufacturers, have formed a Coalition for Future Mobility to press Congress to act on the bills. Included in the group are the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, National Federation of the Blind, and Securing America’s Future Energy, who plan to begin airing radio ads within the upcoming weeks portraying the Senate bills as “liberating innovation for self-driving vehicles.”

Supporters of the legislation say that the NHTSA lacks experience in software regulation, and that the legislation would allow the faster introduction of the vehicles onto the market.

Many experts from the auto industry have expressed concern that the new guidance introduced by the agency in April 2016, which proposed the agency’s jurisdiction should span over software and apps regulation in vehicles, may hinder the production of new vehicle safety software technology, by subjecting the development, testing and implementation to government regulation. However, Democrats have urged the NHTSA to take a more aggressive approach to battle the legislation and maintain regulatory oversight of the self-driving software introduced in vehicles across the nation.

NHTSA officials have said they understand there are many obstacles to still overcome to safely implement self-driving vehicles, such as improving marked roadways, sensor enhancements, weather interference, traffic signal controls and technology responsiveness to emergency vehicles.

Although the goal of self-driving technology is to prevent crashes, injuries and fatalities, putting unsafe technology on the roadways could have the opposite effect. According to the NHTSA, full introduction of self-driving vehicles onto U.S. roadways with the current versions of the technology that is available could be extremely dangerous and an unnecessary risk.

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