Federal safety standards for conventional vehicles pre-empt state rules, enabling automakers to sell the same car or truck in all states. But states have authority to set testing, reporting, liability, insurance and other requirements related to vehicle behavior on the road. (A GOP proposal in the U.S. House would restrict these state powers, Reuters reported last week.)
Spelling out rules at the national level, or giving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explicit direction on rule-making, would limit the range of actions available to states, proponents of legislation say.
NHTSA last fall released guidelines for pre-deployment design and testing of autonomous vehicles, as well as for dividing responsibility between federal and state regulators. The Trump administration is expected to update the model policy this summer.
Broad federal standards are also important in case of a fatal accident involving a malfunctioning automated system, said Paul Lewis, an analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington. If good performance and safety standards are in place, automakers and public officials would be able to reassure the public that the accident was an anomaly, and not a general indictment of self-driving vehicles.
"The fear is there will be a knee-jerk reaction from Congress to make sure it never happens again," Lewis told Automotive News. "And that could impede advancements in technology and investment."
As part of their federal wish list, automated vehicle developers want more exemptions from the safety standards that govern conventional vehicles, so they can test vehicles at scale under real-world conditions on public roads.
Such large-scale tests would generate the massive amounts of data needed to continually refine artificial intelligence systems so that they can adapt to unfamiliar surroundings.
In his testimony, Bainwol urged senators to substantially raise the number of vehicles a manufacturer can exempt (currently 2,500 for two years, with renewal options) when testing new models on public roads.
John Maddox, CEO of the American Center for Mobility, a federally designated test bed in Ypsilanti, Mich., said it is too early to set detailed vehicle performance or equipment standards.
Rather, he said, regulators should let the industry pursue voluntary standards because technology is progressing faster than the traditional regulatory process can accommodate. The industry standards could shape future regulation, he said.
Safety groups oppose that approach. In a written response to the congressional testimony, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety rejected the idea of creating exemptions from current statutes or allowing the industry to set its own standards.
"Unless and until NHTSA issues comprehensive standards and regulations to govern the autonomous vehicle rules of the road," the group said, "states have every legal right, indeed a duty to their citizens, to fill the regulatory vacuum with state-developed proposals and solutions for ensuring public safety."