Tomorrow, the House of Representatives is slated to take up consideration of the ‘‘Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution” (SELF DRIVE) Act. The bill has a wide array of support, and for good reason: it establishes a clear roadmap for integrating autonomous vehicles on American roadways without unduly burdening ongoing research and development into this potentially life-saving technology.

In particular, the following provisions are especially encouraging, and will likely help foster innovation, investment, and ongoing trial-and-error experimentation in this new emerging technological field:

  • It preempts individual states from establishing laws or regulations “regarding the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems” if they are more restrictive or onerous than those laid out in the bill. [Sec. 3];
  • Two years from the date of enactment, the Department of Transportation is to issue a final rule for safety assessment certifications. Until then, the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy guidance issued in September 2016, “or any successor guidance,” will serve as the interim rule for submitted safety assessment letters. The Department is thereafter required to periodically review the rule, updating as conditions warrant. [Sec. 4];
  • Within one year of enactment, the Department of Transportation is to provide a “rulemaking and safety priority plan” for the deployment and integration of autonomous vehicles on American roadways. A formal rulemaking is to commence six months later. [Sec. 4];
  • Manufacturers are required to develop clear cybersecurity plans to protect the system integrity of their autonomous vehicles. [Sec. 5];
  • Manufacturers are required to develop clear privacy plans, which notify occupants of the collection and use practices, unless that information is anonymized or encrypted so as to make individual identification impossible. [Sec. 12(a)] The Federal Trade Commission is also directed to study the consumer protection issues in this emerging marketplace, and its Section 5 authority to police violations of the user privacy notifications are clearly and unambiguously reiterated as applying to this provision of the bill. [Sec. 12(b),(c)]; and
  • While awaiting the development of safety standard rules, manufacturers may be exempted from current standards for up to 25,000 autonomous vehicles in the first year, 50,000 in the second year, and 100,000 in the third year after the bill’s passage [Sec. 6(4)]. Notably, the exemptions do not apply to the crashworthiness standards for automobiles, unless the requested exemption applies to “a standard addressing the steering control system” for a vehicle that “will not have a steering control system.” [Sec. 6(5)]

Importantly, the bill does not afford new authorities to the Department, outside the rule to be constructed for safety assessments [Sec. 4; § 30129(a)(4)(B)]. This is an important inclusion, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s original Federal Automated Vehicle Policy argued in favor of expanding both pre-market and post-market approval authorities. In comments submitted late last year, the Niskanen Center argued against this approach:

Any proposal to extend these authorities to assessing post-sale software updates of autonomous vehicles, however, would necessitate new statutory authorities not currently proscribed to the agency. We argue that pursuing any such authority is likely to be time-consuming and resource-intensive, and that the agency should focus its efforts on promoting general best practices to guide manufacturer self-certification, rather than seek dubiously efficacious authorities such as these.

We’re happy to see that the SELF DRIVE Act eschews the immediate expansion of potentially onerous regulatory authorities for the Department. Instead, by focusing on reporting requirements, real-world testing and deployment, and formal rulemaking procedures, this bill creates certainty for an emerging technological market without sacrificing public safety concerns.

The Niskanen Center commends Reps. Greg Walden (R-OR), Robert Latta (R-OH), and the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for their commitment to technological innovation and progress. As Rep. Latta noted in July, following the Committee’s unanimous vote in support of the legislation: “We don’t have to accept a world where millions of accidents and thousands of fatalities on the roadway are a necessary evil of driving.” We agree; and the SELF DRIVE Act is precisely the type of bipartisan proposal that can get us there.