Ask a bunch of people materially invested in autonomous cars what the biggest obstacle to rollout is, and they’ll almost certainly tell you the same thing — regulations. The hardware that enables self-driving cars already exists, the software is coming along, and fast, low-latency 5G networks are in the pipeline. Partnerships between tech companies, auto manufacturers, and fleet operators like Lyft and Uber have already been established. The unanswered questions were whether or not the U.S. government would allow the cars on the road, and if they did, how quickly they’d allow them. A bill that passed the House yesterday suggests they might be willing to step on the gas.
In a vote yesterday, the House of Representatives passed H.R.3388 (you can read the full bill here) with bipartisan support — a bill called the SELF DRIVE Act (the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act; my thoughts are with the intern tasked with making that acronym work). The resolution would prevent individual states from banning autonomous cars and would allow automakers to start deploying self-driving cars exempt from federal auto safety standards within the first year after the bill becomes law.
The bill still calls for something of a measured rollout. Automakers could only deploy 25,000 autonomous cars within that first year, with the cap set at 100,000 per year by year three. The bill requires the Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule regarding safety certifications for self-driving cars within two years of the bill becoming law, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tasked with reviewing safety certifications until then. The bill also calls for rules to be established for how automakers need to educate members of the public about autonomous cars.
There are some requirements made of automakers, as well. The bill would require them to have written privacy and cybersecurity policies in place before selling autonomous cars, and all automakers would need to include backseat sensors to alert drivers if they leave a child in the backseat of a car while parked.
Having passed the House, it’s time for the Senate to draw up a similar bill. Word is they’ll confront the question of commercial autonomous vehicles, a battle that is sure to be more fraught — as it should be. This would include self-driving delivery trucks that would ultimately replace human drivers, something that promises to be hugely disruptive.
It should be on Congress to consider issues like this. While autonomous driving technology clearly has the potential to save lives — software will never drive impaired or distracted — the broader socioeconomic effects should be considered carefully before moving forward. After all, the list of unintended (or intended) consequences here, beyond the loss of delivery jobs, is almost without end. If there are no truckers, what happens to drive-by towns with economies built on feeding those truckers and servicing their vehicles? If autonomous cars ultimately represent the end of car ownership, what of the mechanics? These aren’t necessarily reasons to block autonomous cars, but they’re certainly reasons to plan for these job losses before rushing headlong into the future.
It will be very interesting to see whether or not the Senate chooses to tackle those issues or sprint ahead like the House — history suggests something closer to the former. Should the Senate bolt ahead and pass a bill after all, the House and Senate bills would need to be reconciled before being sent to the president for authorization.