US Senate seeks to end impasse on self-driving car bill

In the debate over a landmark self-driving car bill in the US Senate, proponents argue self-driving cars will reduce road deaths, while those who oppose the bill express concern that the technology is not yet ready.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
A self-driving Chevy Bolt EV car cruises the streets in San Francisco during a media event by Cruise, a GM subsidiary, on Nov. 28, 2017. The debate over self-driving cars has made its way to the US Senate, where lawmakers are trying new strategies to win approval for landmark legislation.

The chairman of the US Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday said he is pursuing different strategies to win approval this year of landmark self-driving car legislation that could make it easier for automakers to get thousands of cars on the road without human controls.

Self-driving cars could reduce the 37,000 annual US road deaths and provide mobility to the disabled and blind, said Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota who chairs the Commerce Committee.

"We could save a lot of lives," Senator Thune said, noting government findings that 94 percent of car crashes are caused by human error. “It is cutting-edge technology, transformational in terms of the economy.”

A few blocks from the Capitol, the committee will convene on Wednesday at the site of the Washington auto show for a field hearing on self-driving cars and other auto technologies that will include executives from auto supplier Robert Bosch, Audi, and Zoox Inc.

In September, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a similar measure that would allow automakers to win exemptions from safety rules that require human controls.

The bill's future in the Senate has been complicated by a handful of Democratic senators raising questions about whether the technology is ready and seeking changes. The Senate Commerce Committee approved a similar bill in October.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has not committed to bringing the bill up. Thune said he is trying to convince Democrats to agree to limit debate on the floor. A second option is to attach the self-driving measure to another bill like a forthcoming infrastructure proposal.

“It’s got some huge potential payoffs, the most important of which is safety," Thune said. "If you could eliminate some of the distracted driving and driving under the influence you could save a lot of lives."

Thune, who is working with Sen. Gary Peters (D) of Michigan, said he believes if the bill comes to the Senate floor it would win 75 or 80 votes in the 100-member chamber.

General Motors Co., Alphabet Inc., Ford Motor Co., and others have lobbied for the landmark legislation, while auto safety groups urged more safeguards and are fighting for changes.

Within three years, the Senate bill would allow automakers to each sell up to 80,000 self-driving vehicles annually if they could demonstrate to regulators they are as safe as current vehicles. States could set rules on registration, licensing, liability, and insurance, but not performance standards.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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