The United States House of Representatives will cast a historic vote next Wednesday that may have a massive impact on the autonomous vehicle industry. The bill will make it easier for manufacturers to bring fully autonomous vehicles to the market even if they don’t meet current safety standards for human-operated vehicles in the first year. The bill was passed by a House panel in July and is now heading for a vote on the House floor.
The proposed bill is designed to stimulate the real-world development of self-driving vehicles. At the same time, it also wants to prevent any effort at the state level to slow down the adoption of autonomous vehicles—ironic, coming from the “small government” Republican Party. The bill allows manufacturers to sell and use up to 25,000 exempt vehicles annually. The total could rise to 100,000 after three years. Current federal rules and regulations in states like California restrict self-driving cars without humans behind the wheel. Manufacturers and tech companies like Alphabet (that’s Google) believe these rules are too restrictive, while consumer groups are battling to make sure that this bill goes through an appropriate level of due diligence.
The bill would allow manufacturers to put vehicles on the road that are exempt from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The standards require human-oriented safety features and mandate the placement of steering wheels or brake pedals which might not be necessary for a self-driving car. Under the proposed changes, manufacturers would not require pre-market approval for new self-driving systems. Instead, they must submit a safety report demonstrating that a vehicle winning an exemption is still just as safe on the road as an existing car. Unsurprisingly, consumer groups want more funding for safety agencies to monitor the situation. It does sound just a little risky, given that automakers are already willing to cut corners to save pennies on parts like airbags, parking brakes, and gas tanks. You know, important parts.
Notably, the bill is being presented to the House under a fast track rule that prevents any amendments. It’s a take it or leave gamble that House Republicans will vote to pass any bill that frees up the industry, whether or not the critics are right. Overall, many on both sides of the debate agree that self-driving cars and trucks can make the transportation industry more efficient and safer in the long run. Recent statistics show that deaths on U.S. roads went up a staggering 7.7% year over year, which is the most since 1966. Whether or not this is the right bill is a question that legislators must answer on Wednesday.