Will Federal Regulations Nullify State Autonomous Driving Laws?

Although the development of self-driving vehicles is well under way, there are still a lot of questions about potential safety regulations and which segment of government will oversee them. Because the federal government has so far not drafted any rules governing the testing and operation of autonomous cars, it has been left up to state governments to devise a patchwork of local laws instead.

That may be changing soon. According to a report in the Detroit News today, the U.S. House of Representatives has advanced legislation that would prevent states and municipalities from passing regulations pertaining to an autonomous vehicle’s construction, software, design, or communications. If the legislation makes it out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—and with lingering policy disagreements between Republicans and Democrats, it’s not certain it will—a full vote would take place this fall.

What is still unclear is what a set of federal laws will do to existing state laws. Michigan is one of about a dozen states that has passed regulations regarding autonomous vehicles, and its legislation is arguably the most comprehensive.

Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of bills that clarified how self-driving cars could operate on Michigan roads. Hailed at the time of passage as being the first of its kind, the legislation also addresses testing driverless cars without steering wheels, pedals, or human control; automotive and tech companies focused on self-driving cars in ridesharing services; and self-driving cars to be sold for public use once the technology has been tested and certified.

Other regions around the Xconomy network have passed their own rules. A few weeks ago, Xconomy Seattle editor Ben Romano reported that Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, issued an executive order directing state agencies to support the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads. The order also authorized pilot programs and established an interagency work group with a mandate to include not just passenger cars, but also “freight, aviation, transit, passenger rail, marine vessels and ferries, as well as points of convergence with connected, shared, and electric vehicles.”

Last fall, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order outlining policy guidelines for testing self-driving cars. A state government work group dedicated to autonomous vehicles is also currently debating safety, liability, security, and the impact of self-driving cars on the rest of the state’s transportation system. It’s unknown when or if these bills will be taken up by the state’s legislators.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has also dipped a toe in the regulatory waters, calling in May for the creation of a steering committee to study the issue. The U.S. Senate has its own bipartisan effort underway to regulate self-driving cars, although it seems more preliminary. The Senate has released a “set of principles” that advocate for prioritizing safety, strengthening cybersecurity, and promoting innovation.

The Detroit News reports that the proposed legislation in the U.S. House is good news for automakers, but some safety advocates are unhappy. A letter signed by a coalition of seven such groups was sent to lawmakers this week, urging them not to “preclude” states from participating in the formulation of these regulations.

A lot remains up in the air when it comes to just how autonomous vehicles will hit the market. Even if Congress passes the legislation currently in committee, there is still a big interoperability issue to tackle, among other technical challenges.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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