Lawmakers Fight Over Proposed Self-Driving Car Rules

It seems Republicans and Democrats can't agree on rules for autonomous cars, either.

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Congress is getting more serious about developing rules for self-driving cars, but so far isn't making much progress. A session of a House panel on self-driving cars led to debates among lawmakers about issues such as the role of the federal government, and the overall pace of the push for autonomous cars.

Democrats on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee took issue with a package of autonomous-car rules proposed by Republicans, reports Reuters. The package of 14 laws would allow the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to exempt up to 100,000 cars per year from federal safety rules, a move meant to allow automakers to build prototype self-driving cars without backup manual controls. The bills would also prevent states from drafting their own self-driving car rules.

The exemption would allow automakers to put more autonomous test vehicles on the road faster, as would another proposal that would prevent the NHTSA from pre-approving any tech automakers might want to test on public roads. But Democrats believe the proposed rules strip too much authority from the NHTSA and the states. The lack of oversight could in turn impact public safety, lawmakers believe.

Republicans claim their proposed rules free up automakers to innovate. The provision against state autonomous-car rules is also something automakers have been aggressively lobbying for. Two automaker trade associations said in testimony before the committee that the industry doesn't want to deal with a "patchwork" of regulations that vary from state to state. But sweeping federal regulations would also prevent states from setting their own, stricter rules.

Citing competition from other countries and high numbers of traffic deaths, Republicans said sweeping self-driving car legislation needs to be passed by Congress soon. But Democrats noted that the NHTSA currently has multiple vacant leadership positions. The agency didn't even send anyone to testify at Tuesday's hearing.

For now, the only thing even closely resembling federal self-driving car regulations are a set of voluntary guidelines released by the Obama Administration. The Trump Administration's Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, has already vowed to revise these, but without any indication of what revisions will be made. Given the lack of focus among government officials, it's entirely possible that self-driving cars will remain in a technological Wild West for the time being.