As first reported by Reuters on April 22, Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) had recently released drafts of an amendment that would allow the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to exempt 15,000 self-driving vehicles per manufacturer from safety standards that were written for human drivers. Within three years, that figure would rise to 80,000, and after four years, manufacturers could ask NHTSA to increase exemptions beyond 80,000 vehicles. At this time, NHTSA only allows exemptions of up to 2,500 vehicles per manufacturer.
In a statement, Sen. Peters said the amendment would “ensure that the innovation and testing around autonomous vehicles can continue happening safely under the watchful eye of the Department of Transportation.” The Senators had planned to attach the amendment to “The AI Scholarship-for-Service Act,” a bill providing $100 billion for science and technology research and development with the aim of maintaining U.S. competitiveness with China.
However, on April 26, Sen. Thune said the markup of the amendment would be postponed until after the Senate recess and that the amendment may not end up being attached to the “The AI Scholarship-for-Service Act.” The postponement comes amidst rising safety concerns and shortly after a highly publicized, fatal crash in Houston involving a Tesla automobile that had allegedly been using self-driving mode without a human in the driver’s seat.
At a hearing on April 27 of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports, several senators voiced their concerns about the amendment and broader safety concerns regarding autonomous vehicles. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pointed to the recent Tesla crash and said it “highlights many unanswered questions about technology that purports to be automated.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also voiced concerns about the misuse of automated technology and asked, “What can we do to ensure that consumers are getting that education so they can safely use this technology?” At the hearing, Alliance for Automotive Innovation President and CEO John Bozzella argued the U.S. risks losing its competitiveness and leadership position “if we don’t create this national framework to deploy and test highly automated vehicles at scale safely and effectively.” Bozzella said he supported increasing the number of automated vehicles on the road in order to advance the technology. “We have to create a new regulatory framework for highly automated vehicles,” he said. “In order to do that we need more data,” but “the small current process doesn’t give us enough vehicles on the road or enough data over a long enough period of time to really get that insight and data.”
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