The U.S. House approved a bill on Wednesday that could soon pave the way for Ford, Google, Uber and other companies to deploy hundreds of thousands of new self-driving cars on the country’s roads.
But the measure isn’t yet law — it still has to survive the slow-moving Senate, where lawmakers continue to wrangle over fine policy details and already seem overwhelmed with a heavy legislative workload this fall.
For now, though, it’s all good news. In a city increasingly wracked by partisan divides, Democrats and Republicans managed to band together on a bill, called the SELF-DRIVE Act, that aims to allow automakers and tech giants to eventually test as many as 100,000 experimental autonomous vehicles annually.
Under the proposal, those companies could obtain exemptions from the federal safety standards that govern all motor vehicles, and they would not have to seek review of their technology before it hits the market. Otherwise, the bill spares automakers from state regulations targeting the way they construct and design their driverless cars.
“We have an opportunity today to support and promote the safe testing and deployment of this life saving technology,” said Ohio Rep. Bob Latta, one of the bill’s authors, during a speech prior to the House vote.
“U.S. companies are investing major resources in the research and development of this tech and should not be held up by regulatory barriers” put in place when “self driving cars were science fiction,” Latta continued.
Not all are happy with the House’s effort. Consumers Union, the policy wing of Consumer Reports, said Wednesday that lawmakers should have imposed stronger safety regulations on driverless vehicles. Unions, meanwhile, expressed fresh doubts that Congress had forged ahead without seriously considering the implications of the technology on jobs and industries like trucking.
“Adequately addressing the impact driverless vehicles will have on jobs, wages and safety will require more deliberation and public input from all stakeholders, including transportation labor,” said Larry I. Willis, the president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO, in a statement.
Those debates now fall to the Senate, where Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., have been working behind the scenes for months on their own self-driving car bill. As they wade through the remaining roadblocks, the duo — as leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee — plans to hold a hearing on Sept. 13 to see whether self-driving car legislation should include self-driving trucks, they announced Wednesday.
Before the hearing, some Capitol Hill sources told Recode they also expect Thune and Nelson to circulate a draft version of their bill.
Even when they do issue a bill, though, the Senate might struggle to find the bandwidth to hold a vote. Lawmakers still have to weigh measures to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling and pay for the relief efforts in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, if not another storm barreling toward Miami.
Amid all of that, the chamber still aims to tackle tax reform, at the urging of President Donald Trump. And it could turn unexpectedly to immigration, after Trump on Tuesday scrapped a program that protected young adults from deportation.
For its part, the Trump administration is expected to issue its own guidelines for self-driving cars as soon as next week. It’s supposed to be an update of the voluntary safety checklist of sorts first issued under former President Barack Obama in 2016.
The agency, though, faces its own series of roadblocks. The Transportation Department’s safety watchdog — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — still has no permanent director. Trump hasn’t even nominated anyone to the post. NHTSA, however, is tasked in the House’s just-passed bill with writing new safety rules around the construction of self-driving cars.
Meanwhile, a panel of industry executives advising the U.S. government on driverless-car technology essentially has fallen apart under Trump. The group hasn’t met even once, sources told Recode.