Federal preemption of state legislation regarding autonomous vehicle (AV) policy was front and center at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. This week’s event came on the heels of hearings held in the House earlier this year. The string of hearings reflects lawmakers’ growing urgency to move forward with bipartisan AV legislation. Legislators are concerned with balancing safety and innovation, while helping industry accelerate the development and deployment of AVs on U.S. roadways.
Senate Commerce Committee Chair John Thune (R-SD) and Gary Peters (D-MI) kicked off the event by highlighting their enthusiasm for the new technology and the need to avoid a patchwork of state legislation. As the House continues work on its AV bill, Thune and Peters released this week the overarching principles of their forthcoming bipartisan legislation, which included their interest in clearly delineating state and federal regulatory roles.
Witnesses at the hearing argued that a federal framework is necessary for proper AV testing and deployment.
Witnesses at the hearing agreed with the Senators, arguing that a federal framework is necessary for proper AV testing and deployment. Below is a look at the patchwork that has emerged as 13 states have passed different legislation.
Mitch Bainwol, the CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said: “A patchwork of differing safety and performance standards or other impediments from state to state, and even city to city, is a recipe for delayed deployment and realization of the safety and mobility benefits these technologies offer.”
Rob Csongor, Vice President and General Manager of Automotive Business at NVIDIA Corporation, made a similar statement: “A patchwork of different regulations in different regions hampers development and progress. It would be enormously beneficial to have a unified set of regulations across all states.”
Another expert witness, John Maddox, the President and CEO of the American Center for Mobility, agreed: “Even a small number of differing or conflicting standards or regulations would significantly inhibit the development of AV technology.”
Congress looking at exemptions
Besides the argument that a piecemeal approach must be avoided, witnesses highlighted the need for increased numbers of vehicles to be exempt from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, in order to speed deployment while new federal AV-specific safety regulations are developed and implemented.
Bainwol said the exemptions are “very important” to hasten the smooth transition to autonomy and to increase testing data. With massive research and development necessary for stakeholders, it’s important that they have the flexibility to test their autonomous technology. “Without providing NHTSA expanded authority to grant exemptions from these standards, developers will not be able to deploy the technology at a scale necessary to collect more robust real-world data to inform future regulatory action,” Bainwol told legislators.
Witnesses highlighted the need for increased numbers of vehicles to be exempt from certain standards, in order to speed deployment while new federal AV-specific safety regulations are developed and implemented.
Csongor remarked that more exemptions would be a “positive step” in ensuring that data is as diverse as possible. As of now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the ability to grant companies permission to put up to 2,500 non-FMVSS compliant vehicles on public roads, but industry and new market participants have requested a much higher cap. One House legislative proposal would raise the number of exemptions to 100,000 and allow companies to test AVs without steering wheels, brake pedals, and other traditional human-operated controls.
Fuel savings from automation
Besides the capability to significantly reduce traffic deaths and increase access to mobility for elderly, disabled, and low-income populations, AVs have the potential to reduce dependency on petroleum. Natural synergies between autonomous and electric vehicles are becoming more apparent and will grow even more as battery costs decline. But there’s also the opportunity for fuel savings in AVs with internal combustion engines.
Automated vehicles will bring “significant” efficiency, spurring fuel savings of as much as 10 percent, benefiting the overall economy.
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) brought up the critical issue of how autonomy will help boost efficiency in the vehicle fleet, noting that high fuel costs are a concern for her state’s economy. In response to Cantwell’s concerns, Maddox said that connected and automated vehicles will bring “significant” efficiency, spurring fuel savings of as much as 10 percent, benefiting the overall economy. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), meanwhile, highlighted how the disabled will benefit from the use of AVs and offered a potential solution of waiving some rules now in order to help this part of the population as soon as possible.
Legislation coming soon
Both the House and Senate are moving in the right direction for advancing AV regulations. In a statement, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) said that it “is encouraged by Congressional action to advance AV policy given the many ways this technology will improve the lives of countless people, prevent deaths, and mitigate our nation’s oil dependence.” It added: “Congress has an important role to play in expediting the safe deployment of these vehicles on public roads by judiciously establishing a single, national regulatory framework.”
“Congress has an important role to play in expediting the safe deployment of these vehicles on public roads by judiciously establishing a single, national regulatory framework.”
Policy makers are open to the ideas of federal preemption and necessary flexibility for stakeholders to perform the testing necessary during the period of transitioning to an autonomous future. The House and Senate are expected to reveal legislative text relatively soon. The Department of Transportation is also expected to revisit the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy in the coming months. A strong and comprehensive framework can help fill the current regulatory void and spur the move to a safe and efficient automated transportation network.