Photo of self-driving car courtesy of SmartUSA/Mercedes-Benz.

Photo of self-driving car courtesy of SmartUSA/Mercedes-Benz.

Despite objections from some safety advocacy groups, a Senate bill aimed at accelerating the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles advanced on Wednesday, Oct. 4, with bipartisan support.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation passed the AV START Act on a voice vote — about a month after the House passed similar legislation. The acronym stands for American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies. The bill, however, still faces a vote by the full Senate.

The legislation would permit manufacturers to apply for exemptions to federal vehicle safety standards in order to sell self-driving vehicles that may lack conventional equipment such as steering wheels and pedals. The bill applies a phased-in approach to such exemptions for self-driving vehicles, allowing 15,000 exempted vehicles per manufacturer the first year. The cap would rise to 40,000 in the second year and 80,000 in the third.

“This legislation proposes common-sense changes in law to keep pace with advances in self-driving technology,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “By playing a constructive role in the development of self-driving transportation systems, our government can help save lives, improve mobility for all Americans including those with disabilities, and create new jobs by making us leaders in this important technology.”

The bill would require manufacturers to submit safety evaluation reports — addressing concerns including crashworthiness and cybersecurity — to the Department of Transportation before testing or deploying self-driving vehicles. The U.S. DOT would have broad regulatory authority over matters related to automated vehicle design, construction and performance, thereby thwarting a patchwork of state regulations. States, however, would continue to oversee issues related to vehicle licensing, registration, insurance, traffic management, and law enforcement.

The AV START Act directs the DOT to work with manufacturers to adopt policies strengthening vehicle cybersecurity, requires manufacturers to have written cybersecurity risk-reduction plans, and establishes a committee of experts to recommend standards for such matters as data recording and sharing. Other provisions address guidelines for consumer education about autonomous vehicles and for vehicle accessibility for disabled people.

The legislation, however, maintains the status quo for commercial trucks and buses. The AV START Act applies only to vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.

A number of safety advocacy groups, including the National Safety Council and the Consumer Federation of America, expressed concerns that the legislation falls short of providing adequate federal oversight.

“Autonomous vehicles have the extraordinary potential to be the technological vaccine that will dramatically reduce the death and injury currently associated with motor vehicles,” said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America. “However, more than any other product introduction, there needs to be significant oversight, standards and regulations established to ensure that the true potential of the AV is reached.”

Gillis expressed concerns that the AV START Act would allow manufacturers to collectively introduce hundreds of thousands of vehicles into the market before the establishment of specific performance standards for complex systems. He also argued for public access to autonomous vehicle accident and accident-avoidance data, and raised questions about the undermanned National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s capacity to adequately regulate such cutting-edge technology.

In addition to automakers, supporters of the legislation include advocacy groups for the disabled. Organizations expressing support include the American Association of People With Disabilities, the National Federation of the Blind and the National Council on Disability.