Yesterday, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 3388, the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Development and Research In Vehicle Evolution (SELF Drive) Act. The bill, which was approved on a bipartisan voice vote, establishes a national framework for the use of self-driving vehicles, and defines the roles of the federal and state governments for self-driving cars, otherwise known as autonomous vehicles (AVs), including a requirement for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop sweeping regulations for AVs. Congressional action to balance innovation and safety on this fast emerging new technology now moves to the Senate this Fall.

The key provision of the SELF Drive Act is a requirement that the DOT establish a Vehicle Advisory Council which will present best practices and regulatory recommendations to the DOT for developing comprehensive guidelines and regulations with respect to safety, cybersecurity, protection of mobility access for the disabled and elderly; and a framework for technology-information sharing between car manufacturers. The Council will also advise the DOT on environmental impact, labor, consumer privacy, and AV road testing for operational limitations and related verification and validation procedures.

The SELF Drive Act also expressly prohibits state and local governments from developing laws or regulations regarding design, construction or performance of AVs unless those local laws and regulations mirror federal law and regulation. As a result, federal laws and regulations would preempt state and local law with respect to key AV policy matters. States and localities would, under the Act, maintain the ability to establish their own administrative requirements related to licensing, registration, education, training, emissions inspections, insurance and other such matters traditionally under local control.

Some specific safety requirements are established under the bill for privacy plans, consumer information and cybersecurity. The bill prohibits any car manufacturer from selling or importing AVs without first establishing privacy plans and policies. The written manufacturer privacy plans and policies will address collection, use and sharing of information about vehicle owners and occupants, practices for data minimization, de-identification, and disclosure. The Federal Trade Commission would have jurisdiction over these privacy plans including responsibility for enforcement. The DOT will, within three years of the Act becoming law, complete research on providing adequate consumer information about AV technology to the public and then begin a rulemaking process for manufacturer requirements on consumer information. Finally, the bill expressly prohibits a manufacturer from selling or importing AVs without first developing clear cybersecurity plans and policies that cover avoidance and mitigation of potential cyberattacks.

The Act also increases the types of exemptions from federal safety standards that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can provide to AVs. Exemptions could be granted by NHTSA if it enables easier "development or field evaluation" of an AV that improves safety towards a given standard for an AV feature or the overall vehicle safety. Exemptions are only allowed where production is less than 100,000 per year along with other subsequent timing and aggregate production requirements. Exemptions and renewals could be granted for a maximum of four years per exemption.

One other key aspect of the Act is a requirement that, within two years of the bill becoming law, the DOT issue a final rule that requires safety assessment certifications be submitted to DOT. The final rule will specify which entities will be required to submit such certifications including related test results, fail safe features and requirements for updating certification requirements and submissions. The DOT would be required to initiate new rulemaking on these requirements every five years thereafter. The DOT will also be required to initiate or continue a review of relevant federal motor vehicle safety standards and safety priority plans for AVs shortly after the bill becomes law.

While the House approved the SAFE DRIVE Act on a bipartisan voice vote, the Senate is unlikely to quickly adopt the bill, as a group of Senators are working on their own legislation, which they have indicated will differ from the House measure. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) are drafting a separate AV bill. Earlier this year, these Senators released a set of principles for their legislation, which include the following:

  • Prioritize safety
  • Promote continued innovation and reduce existing roadblocks
  • Remain technology neutral
  • Reinforce separate federal and state roles
  • Strengthen cyber-security
  • Educate the public to encourage responsible adoption of self-driving vehicles

The Senate Committee will also hold a hearing on automated trucks next Wednesday, September 13. The hearing will feature testimony from the following witnesses: Colonel Scott G. Hernandez, Chief, Colorado State Patrol; Troy Clarke, Chief Executive Officer, Navistar; Deborah Hersman, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Safety Council; and Chris Spear, President and Chief Executive Officer, the American Trucking Associations; and will come one day after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is scheduled to release an updated NHTSA voluntary guidance on AVs.