House panel vote paves way for self-driving cars to reach marketplace sooner

Concerned over a spike in road deaths, lawmakers work on a bill that would allow automakers to deploy up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles without needing to meet existing auto safety standards.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra speaks next to an autonomous Chevrolet Bolt electric car equipped with self-driving software in Detroit, on Dec. 15, 2016.

A United States House panel on Wednesday approved a sweeping proposal by voice vote to allow automakers to deploy up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles without meeting existing auto safety standards and bar states from imposing driverless car rules.

Rep. Robert Latta (R) of Ohio who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee overseeing consumer protection, said he would continue to consider changes before the full committee votes on the measure, expected next week. The full US House of Representatives will not take up the bill until it reconvenes in September after the summer recess.

The measure, which would be the first significant federal legislation aimed at speeding self-driving cars to market, would require automakers to submit safety assessment reports to US regulators, but would not require pre-market approval of advanced vehicle technologies.

Automakers would have to show self-driving cars "function as intended and contain fail safe features" but the Transportation Department could not "condition deployment or testing of highly automated vehicles on review of safety assessment certifications," the draft measure unveiled late Monday said.

The issue has taken new urgency because road deaths in the US rose 7.7 percent in 2015 over the previous year to 35,200, the highest annual jump since 1966. Traffic deaths climbed nearly 8 percent in the first nine months of 2016, government data showed.

Current federal motor vehicle safety rules prevent the sale of self-driving vehicles without human controls. Automakers must meet nearly 75 auto safety standards, many of which were written with the assumption that a licensed driver will be in control of the vehicle.

General Motors Co, Alphabet Inc, Ford Motor Co, Tesla Inc, and others have been lobbying Congress to pre-empt rules under consideration in California and other states that could limit self-driving vehicle deployment.

States could still set rules on registration, licensing, liability, insurance, and safety inspections, but could not set self-driving car performance standards, under the proposal.

Auto dealers want the final bill to clarify that the measure would not preempt state dealer franchise laws that generally bar automakers from selling vehicles directly to consumers.

Consumers Union, a public advocacy group, said Wednesday the bill needs more changes and must "ensure that automakers demonstrate automated vehicles' safety and don't put consumers at greater risk in a crash." The group opposes "restricting states' safety authority without strong federal safety standards in place."

The administration of former President Barack Obama last year unveiled voluntary guidelines on self-driving cars that asked automakers to submit a 15-question safety assessment. President Trump's transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, said she plans to update those in the coming months.

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