With one bill already having passed by the House of Representatives and another still being drafted in the Senate, self-driving cars may be accelerating onto roadways with millions of vehicles expected on the road over the next few years. Although there are still plenty of concerns about safety and privacy, that's down to the number of cars in those categories that at least one of those pieces of legislation – the SELF DRIVE Act (HR 3388) – is said to allow from manufacturers. Meanwhile, the other legislation, a bipartisan effort out of the Senate, is still being drafted. As of this writing, there have been no reasons put forward as to why both pieces of legislation could not be passed since both are said to be similar. Moreover, that bipartisan Senate proposal could result in more dramatic increases in the number of highly autonomous vehicles (HAVs) on the road since its legislators have still not decided whether to allow for vehicles in excess of 10,000 lbs.
The number of HAVs which would be allowed by the legislation mostly comes down to how many manufacturers are involved in HAV projects and how many they would be allowed to make. According to one proponent, Alan Morrison, there are as many as "30-something manufacturers" involved in self-driving projects. The SELF DRIVE Act would allow for 25,000 vehicles to be deployed in the first year, followed by increases effectively doubling that number yearly with a maximum of 100,000 per year. If 30 auto manufacturers were to build out that maximum, there would be more than 5 million HAVs on roadways by the end of the just three or four years. While that number pales in comparison to the number of overall cars on the road in the U.S. – which is currently estimated to be above 263 million – that is a significant increase over the 2,500 vehicles allowed under the current rules. On the other hand, very few details are known about the bipartisan Senate draft currently in the works but that piece of legislation is said to be similar to the House bill. That piece of legislation is alleged to have a more focused eye on safety and privacy. With that said, those efforts have also still not decided on whether or not to allow trucks and buses to fall under the same rules and that is one area where another increase to the above-mentioned numbers could be seen. HR 3388 has reportedly avoided the topic since it is a hot-button issue among those seeking to limit the impact on Americans in commercial driving occupations.
Regardless of whether both of the changes make it to law, many are still worried about the harm that could befall both drivers and the industry as a result of fast-tracking HAV progress. Some reports have claimed that U.S. drivers are already wary of the technology and there are legitimate concerns associated with allowing automakers and other involved corporations to have more autonomy, exemptions, and preemptions. The vehicles in question will, after all, be driveable by any person holding a license regardless of training or experience and, according to Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, any incidents could undermine consumer confidence further. That's in addition to the problems Exemptions in the laws would allow for vehicles to hit the market without needing to follow all of the regulations on the books, which some argue will lead to problems and should be circumvented with newly reworked standards from regulating agencies instead. Meanwhile, preemptions would protect automakers from state legislation or regulation that could slow things down for automakers considerably since regional rules could severely limit how far drivers can take their vehicles. However, the bill also contains a mandate intended to prompt the NHTSA into getting started on creating those standards instead of letting the industry go unchecked.
HR 3388, at least, does also contain provisions that should alleviate at least some of the fears surrounding autonomy in vehicles. More specifically, any vehicle being deployed with either full automation or partial automation will first need a series of policies in place from the manufacturer. That includes a privacy plan that covers "collection, use, sharing, or storage" of information pertaining to a vehicles owners or "occupants," meaning that the company must have an outline for those aspects of the data and must provide owners with a copy of the plan – which would be enforced by the FTC. Beyond that, companies must have a cyber-security plan which shows how the company will identify and respond to a variety of threats to the security of that data and to the vehicles themselves. In the event of any "incidents," companies will also be required to have plans in place to respond appropriately. Systems Updates are required under that provision, as well, to address any new concerns that arise. Violations of those provisions fall under section 49, U.S. Code § 30165, which sets fines of $21,000 per violation per vehicle with a cap of $105 million.
Unfortunately, there is no real way to know whether or not the legislation in question will become law or when. If it fails, that would be a serious blow to a potentially life-saving industry which, it could be argued, has been held back by inaction on the part of lawmakers and regulators. In any case, concerns about the technology will likely remain until some action is taken and a large number of autonomous vehicles are on the road proving themselves to be safe and reliable or otherwise. If the legislation is enacted, on the other hand, the industry could get precisely the jumpstart it really needs to move the U.S. HAV market forward.