US Senate Commerce Committee Marks up and Passes Autonomous Vehicles Bill

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The US Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation (the Committee) today marked up and passed bipartisan legislation, S.1885, the AV START Act, proposed by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Gary Peters (D-MI). The bill now moves forward for a vote by the full Senate and will then need to be reconciled with similar legislation that passed the House in early September.

Key provisions of the bill include:

Clarifying federal, state and local roles: Mirroring the legislative provisions in the SELF-DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388), which passed the House in early September, the bill codifies the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) lead national role for AV safety standards and performance while supporting state and local roles in determining traffic laws, registration and licensing. This approach avoids a patchwork of state and local safety standards that could stunt sector innovation.

Protecting Americans with disabilities: The bill expressly prohibits the denial of a license to operate a self-driving vehicle on the basis of a disability. Corresponding best practices are outlined for drivers with disabilities as this technology emerges. Ahead of the hearing the American Association for People with Disabilities, the National Federation of the Blind, the National Council on Disability and a coalition of other similar interests all endorsed the legislation.

Safety reports: The bill requires vehicle manufacturers to submit, prior to the testing or deployment, safety evaluation reports to the Secretary of Transportation (the Secretary) on safety, crashworthiness and cybersecurity based on testing, validation and assessment protocols.

Safety standards: The bill expands the Secretary’s existing discretionary authority to allow for a streamlined process for federal motor vehicle safety standards to prioritize safety for up to 80,000 vehicles per manufacturer three years after enactment after an amendment from Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) that lowered the exemption from 100,000.

Maintains status quo for trucks and buses: Despite some proposals to have the legislation apply to trucks and buses, the Act applies only to vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.

Cybersecurity: The Secretary is directed to convene and partner with AV manufacturers to develop and implement policies related to mitigate the risks of potential cybersecurity breaches. In addition, the bill mandates manufacturers to establish comprehensive plans for identifying and mitigating cybersecurity risks to self-driving vehicles.

The bill also establishes a DOT-led committee of experts to propose standards, including for data recording and data access and sharing. This public-private stakeholder forum will have a broad mandate to develop other recommendations for other policy issues related to self-driving vehicles over time.

Consumer protection: The bill also calls for the establishment of guidelines on “responsible consumer education and marketing.” These guidelines will educate consumers on the capabilities and limitations of this new technology and will be developed through a transparent, formal working group.

During the markup, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) offered, and then withdrew, an amendment that would have included heavy trucks in the Act’s definition of a highly automated vehicle and would have given the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) authority to regulate heavy trucks under the Act. Inhofe withdrew the amendment in response to opposition from several senators concerned about how automation would affect employment within the trucking industry. Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) committed to work with Inhofe on the trucking issue.

The Committee also adopted a number of non-controversial amendments by voice-vote. One of the more notable amendments, offered by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), would require the DOT to conduct a study on the transportation, mobility, environmental, energy security, and fuel economy impacts of highly automated vehicles on public roads.  Several amendments dealt with cybersecurity. For instance, the Committee approved an Inhofe amendment that would establish an advisory committee to provide recommendations to Congress on cybersecurity issues in relation to highly automated vehicles.  Another amendment, offered by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MI), would direct the DOT to develop additional cybersecurity resources to assist consumers in minimizing motor vehicle cybersecurity risks.