Several states are considering legislation that could exclude technology companies from operating self-driving vehicles within their borders.
The draft legislation, referred to in some states as Safe Autonomous Vehicle acts, would allow only vehicle manufacturers to test self-driving fleets in the state. Companies such as Uber and Waymo, which are developing autonomous driving systems but not the vehicles themselves, claim the stipulation is restrictive and gives legacy automakers an unfair advantage.
“Just as Americans should have a choice in what car they buy, they should also have a choice to ride in safer, more advanced self-driving cars,” Waymo said in a statement. “This kind of anti-competitive bill will only slow down the rollout of live-saving technology and create an unlevel playing field at the expense of consumer safety.”
The legislation originated in May in Michigan, where Republican state Sen. Mike Kowall and others introduced a package of bills permitting testing of autonomous vehicles without a steering wheel or brake pedal. The package included Senate Bill 996, known as the SAVe Act, which was drafted with input from General Motors. It said only companies that build vehicles could operate fleets without driving controls.
The bills were signed into law in December after language was revised to change the definition of “motor vehicle manufacturer” based on suggestions by Uber and Waymo CEO John Krafcik to include companies developing and testing self-driving systems.
Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland and Illinois are reviewing SAVe bills that contain the original language stipulating which companies can test vehicles in those states.
Technology companies, self-driving vehicle advocacy groups and even other automakers are concerned about the persistence of SAVe legislation and the potential negative effects of excluding competitive players.
“It’s not a good idea to close the door on innovators who might come up with a solution and be a good and valuable partner,” said Brad Stertz, director of government affairs for Audi of America. “Competition is one of great things spurring this revolution since it started.”
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The advent of autonomous vehicles could be a boon for states struggling with easily accessible transportation, but the technology is foreign territory for many local legislators.
Tennessee state Rep. William Lamberth, a Republican, said he represents a rural district and many of his constituents who are elderly or disabled struggle with getting around.
“I’m extremely interested in where technology is going with this,” he said.
But Lamberth, a sponsor of Tennessee’s SAVe bill, said he wants to proceed with caution in the early days of self-driving vehicles.
“We’re trying to figure out where the safe point for Tennesseans is,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how you would open up testing to companies that don’t manufacture vehicles without allowing any individual to put it on the roadway.”
For Illinois state Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Democrat, Michigan’s SAVe bill provided a framework to easily define autonomous vehicles, safety standards and liability protections, allowing the state to get self-driving vehicles on the road quicker than drafting regulations from scratch.
“It’s a new technology that existing statutes never envisioned happening,” Zalewski said. “How do we reconcile that?”
GM said it worked with Michigan on the original SAVe legislation and has been working with states including Tennessee and Illinois that are trying to facilitate a safe rollout of autonomous vehicles.
“The key to it all is going to be rolling it out in a way that ensures the public will accept the technology,” said Harry Lightsey, an executive director of federal affairs for GM.
Lightsey added that the language of the bill is not intended to exclude well-established companies such as Waymo and Uber from operating self-driving fleets, but to avoid “fly-by-night” companies that can’t afford liability lawsuits putting vehicles on public roads.
“The definition of who ought to be deploying this technology is whoever is willing and financially able to stand behind the product they’re putting out to the public,” Lightsey said. “We’re open to how exactly to define that.”
In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, a set of regulatory guidelines. The agency is still evaluating the proposal, with the goal of rolling out an enforceable policy that can be applied nationwide, rather than have companies and consumers navigate a “patchwork of incompatible laws,” according to the NHTSA guidelines.
Some automakers agree with NHTSA’s desire to keep regulations uniform and under the purview of the federal government.
“We firmly believe that the establishment of vehicle performance standards for autonomous vehicle technology should take place at the national level,” said Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, last week in a statement to Congress.
Chan Lieu, an adviser to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets — a group that advocates for autonomous vehicles and represents Ford, Volvo, Waymo, Uber and Lyft — said it may be too early for states to lay out concrete laws without federal guidance and be sure that they’ll facilitate development and safety in self-driving vehicles.
“That’s the concern, is how to synchronize all of this,” Lieu said. “We need to get states to hold off and understand what their motivation is. We’re still a ways off from deployment in a number of these states. It’s premature to be acting.”
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While GM claims it is trying to protect states from situations that could derail deployment of self-driving vehicles, others in the industry see states’ efforts to pass legislation as a way to hamper new entrants from getting their vehicles on the road first.
“We do not support state bills currently under consideration in many states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois and Maryland, which would favor one company,” read a statement from the Self-Driving Coalition.
Lieu said that allowing only automakers to operate self-driving fleets is a safety issue as well as anti-competitive.
“It’s not good for innovation or safety,” Lieu said. “If a technology company has a better way to solve an issue, they should be able to implement their own solution.”
One potential workaround for technology companies looking to test vehicles in states that have passed SAVe legislation would be to partner with automakers. But forcing joint ventures out of legal necessity rather than economic sense is also bad for development of new technology, Lieu said.
“It’s best to leave it up to the market,” he said.
Zalewski said he has yet to hear complaints about Illinois’ SAVe bill, but he expects companies to start knocking on his door soon.
Lamberth said he’s had numerous companies and advocacy groups visiting him to discuss Tennessee’s proposed legislation. But the growing number of voices could be making a complex legal situation even more confusing.
“Just about anybody you’ve heard mentioned has reached out to me about this bill,” Lamberth said. “It’s complicated.”