The WSJ reported that the AV Start bill, intended to clear the regulatory path for self-driving vehicles, is being held up by at least three Senators who cite safety concerns.

In its present form, the bill would prevent states from creating their own safety regulations, allowing developers to deploy test vehicles in any city or interstate route with minimal federal oversight.

The Observer reported that

Vague wording hasn’t stopped the AV Start Act from passing in the House and getting approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. The Trump administration also supports the legislation.

Supporters of AV Start see the value of self-driving vehicles to the trucking, taxi and courier industries — and fear that Silicon Valley’s lead on innovation could be lost to competitors abroad. Its opponents are wary of the consequences of a free-for-all with insufficient regard to the security, privacy and physical well-being of society. The WSJ article notes:

Sen. Blumenthal said that the AV Start bill as currently written doesn’t provide enough safety protections for drivers, passengers and pedestrians… Mr. Markey’s concerns focus more on standard-setting for preventing cyberattacks and protecting consumer privacy. Ms. Feinstein’s office declined to comment. But people familiar with her concerns say they are more far-reaching than her colleagues’.

Public interest group Consumer Watchdog sent an open letter to the Senate arguing that the AV Start Act falls well short of providing enough safety regulation given the state of autonomous vehicle technology:

Consumer Watchdog calls on you to act to protect highway safety and halt the AV START Act, S. 1885, unless it is amended to require enforceable safety standards that apply specifically to autonomous technology. For now, given the state of the technology as indicated by developers themselves, any AV legislation should require a human driver behind a steering wheel capable of taking control.

The Senate bill preempts states from passing their own laws “regarding the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems” or for safety standards for the autonomous vehicle sector. Preemption is a sticky issue – it’s intended to give companies a simplified regulatory playing field by preventing a patchwork quilt of state laws to comply with, ostensibly allowing said companies to get their products out faster. However, it’s not necessarily the case that state laws would slow things down. Consider California, where many autonomous vehicle tech companies are located. It has stronger laws on privacy than the federal government, but it has many of the most important technology companies in the world and they’re doing just fine coping with a range of state laws. Preemption can rob the American public of the possibility of better/safer/stronger laws. To be fair, multiple state laws could, in theory, raise compliance costs and potentially slow down testing or deployment, but this is not certain, and once the states are preempted, there’s no going back.

Gratifyingly, the Senate bill takes two issues into consideration: privacy and people with disabilities. The AV Start bill requires NHTSA to create an online, searchable ‘motor vehicle privacy database’ which would list all the personal data that vehicles (all, not just autonomous) collect, how that data and the conclusions (inferences?) drawn from it are used and disclosed, how long they will be retained, and when they will be destroyed. The database will also collect together all motor vehicle manufacturers’ privacy policies and list the steps that manufacturers will take to ensure the security of customer data. This all goes further than the House SELF DRIVE Act, passed in September 2017, which only requires vehicle manufacturers to have a privacy policy. Still, that’s notable in itself because the Senate bill does not require that, nor does Federal law generally mandate privacy policies, only that the FTC enforce them if a company publishes one. (California does mandate that website operators publish a privacy policy, illustrating a benefit of states being able to pass stronger laws than the federal government.)

Regarding people with disabilities, the AV Safe Act bill goes to considerable lengths to ensure that their needs are included in policy discussions. In particular:

  • autonomous vehicle use licensure may not discriminate against people with disabilities
  • a NHTSA-established Highly Automated Vehicles Technical Committee must study accessibility issues for a range of disabilities, with a dedicated working group and a requirement to produce best practices guidelines

This goes much further than the House version, which only says that the NHTSA Committee may form a subcommittee to consider such issues. The Senate version is far more progressive, considering the great benefits that autonomous vehicles could bring to disabled communities. While manufacturers and service providers may agree those benefits exist, they may not invest in them sufficiently without being nudged.

All in all, there’s a lot to like in the direction of federal autonomous vehicle policy, as well as unsurprising areas for improvement.

[In looking into this issue, I found great information in this Medium piece by Colin McCormick, and this 2017 report from the Congressional Research Service.]