In a step forward for autonomous driving technology on Wednesday, the United States House of Representatives unanimously approved a measure to help move forward the technology on a federal level. The measure prevents states from prohibiting autonomous driving altogether, and puts regulation chiefly in the hands of federal regulators. It is the first significant legislation on a federal level aiming to help self-driving cars reach the market.
The measure would allow exemptions for automakers, allowing them to deploy as many as 25,000 vehicles during the first year without meeting current auto safety standards. Over three years, that cap would rise to 100,000 vehicles per year.
According to Representative Doris Matsui, the measure “puts us on a path towards innovation which, up until recently, seemed unimaginable.”
The legislation was applauded by business groups, automakers, and advocates for the blind, but also faced criticism from consumer groups saying that it fails to ensure the vehicles will be safe.
Automakers seeking exemptions under the bill would have to demonstrate that their vehicles are at least as safe as other cars currently on the market. States would still be empowered to set rules on registration, liability, licensing, and inspections for safety and insurance, but not performance standards.
Manufacturers would need to submit safety assessment reports to regulators, but pre-market approval of advanced technologies would not be required.
Next, the legislation will be considered by the Senate, where a group of legislators has been working towards a similar measure.
Auto manufacturers such as General Motors and Alphabet’s Waymo unit are hoping to get their self-driving cars onto the market around 2020, and have campaigned for federal rules making it easier to do so. Meanwhile, some consumer groups have argued for a more cautious path forward, to address lingering safety concerns.
Existing federal laws prohibit cars without human controls. Without federal guidance, states have rolled out their own sets of rules, and automakers have argued that some, such as California’s, are overly restrictive. Supporters of the technology hope it will help cut down on road deaths in the US, which increased 7.7 percent in 2015, the highest increase since 1966. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic in the US costs about $836 billion a year in economic loss. They say human error causes 94 percent of accidents.
However, consumer advocate groups, such as Consumer Watchdog, argue that the approach could backfire. The group said in a statement:
“The autonomous vehicle bill just passed by the House leaves a wild west without adequate safety protections for consumers. It pre-empts any state safety standards, but there are none at the national level.”