There is no federal law on the books to regulate any aspect of autonomous driving technology on U.S. roads – yet.

There are a set of safety standards developed under the Obama administration last year. However, they are voluntary. Moreover, they do not yet address the chief issue facing both the auto and tech industries in the next few years: testing self-driving cars on public roads.

That is about to change – somewhat.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee spent time this week debating 14 new bills dedicated to putting self-driving cars on the roads sooner.

One draft of an unnumbered bill would amend section 30103 of title 49 of the U.S. Code. It would provide the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with sole control for regulating highly automated vehicles. Known as the “Let the NHTSA Enforce Automated Vehicle Driving Regulations Act” or the “LEAD’R ACT.”

The bill would effectively remove other interested government parties from dealing with regulation, thereby leaving the auto industry to work solely with the NHTSA.

The Trump administration has not yet appointed an administrator for the NHTSA.

Other drafts, like the “Renewing Opportunities for Automated Vehicle Development Act” (the “ROAD Act”), amend the same section of the United States Code to exempt new autonomous vehicles from regulation enforcing the use of vehicle safety features.

The “Maximizing Opportunities for Research and the Enhancement of Automated Vehicles Act” (the “MORE Act”) does effectively the same thing – expanding exemptions from motor vehicle safety standards for automated vehicle manufacturers testing or evaluating their cars.

These bills along with the 11 others currently being proposed by Congress are designed to be the start to a system of coherent and cohesive federal regulation designed to thwart the potential of a patchwork of regulation across 50 states that might hinder the testing and eventual roll out of self-driving cars.
Washington’s leadership is of central importance to the issue.

The former director of the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration and current counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, David Strickland, said in his testimony before the committee that if each of the 50 states were to adopt 50 different safety standards, it would stifle innovation.

If the federal government can pre-empt that, it should prevent major headaches later.
However, while these bills are still in early stages, they do provide insight into how a Republican controlled Congress will approach legislating an emerging industry that promises to provide many legal and ethical complications.

While Washington is taking its place as the national regulator, these bills suggest that Congress may try to shirk its duty to enforce safety standards, leaving the safety and development entirely up to for-profit companies and a single regulating body in the name of efficiency.

And this could harm the future of self-driving cars much as a patchwork of local regulation could.
Indeed, in his expert witness testimony, Alan Morrison, of the George Washington Law School, spoke of the “extremely complicated” issues that require legal, policy, and technical considerations, all of which mean “…simply telling NHTSA to do what is needed to bring on safe driverless cars will not suffice.”

Because if the government is willing to hand off basic safety regulations to the NHTSA in favor of expediting the process, then it hurts public confidence that they will be willing to tackle major philosophical and safety issues facing the industry.

If the federal government wants to maintain its authority on national safety standards, the House will need to come to the realization that it must fully engage with them. Because if Washington takes a similar approach to the important issues it will face by advocating for a lack of public transparency and leaving decisions up to the industry, as it has done with these initial bills, there is no reason the states should not step in to protect drivers.

And if that is the case, it is likely that self-driving cars will advance no further than they are today.