Self-driving vehicles are finally going to hit U.S. roads thanks to this bill

In a historic development, a U.S. senate panel has overwhelmingly approved a bill aimed at reducing the time gap before robotic self-driving cars are deployed on U.S. roads.

In a development that will lend further momentum to automakers, a U.S. Senate panel has unanimously approved a bill aimed at speeding the deployment of self-driving vehicles in the U.S. and bars states from imposing regulatory road blocks.

The bill is on track to clear a vote in the Senate.

This development is likely to significant boost the revenues of tech companies, automakers and ride service providers since it quickens the deployment of autonomous automated cars that can ferry passengers on U.S. roads.

Alphabet Inc, General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and others have lobbied for the landmark legislation; on the other hand, auto safety groups have urged lawmakers to ensure that there are sufficient safeguards to protect human lives.

Significantly, the measure is not expected to speed up the deployment of self-driving commercial trucks, which remain in a slower lane despite support from several Republican senators.

The Senate Commerce, Science and the Transportation Committee have all approved the bill; last month, the U.S. House of Representatives has unanimously passed a similar measure.

As per Senator John Thune, the Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, the bill “underscores the bipartisan desire to move ahead with self-driving vehicle technology…. The safety and economic benefits of self-driving vehicles are too critical to delay.”

Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, has sought to amend the bill to require human controls be available in self-driving cars, in case of emergency; however he dropped that proposal following arguments that it would be more dangerous to allow human drivers to seek to take over self-driving cars.

Despite this huge legislative victory, tech companies and carmakers face significant technical challenges ahead, including complications of driverless vehicles sharing the road with human drivers.

Incidentally, neither the House nor the Senate bill would speed approval of self-driving technology for vehicles over 10,000 pounds, a step pushed by trucking organizations. Labor unions raised safety and employment concerns, and Democrats resisted that part of the proposal.

As per Jim Hoffa, President of Teamsters, the “safe development of advanced heavy trucking technology must encapsulate the life-and-death issues that are specific to that industry, not consider such consequences as an inconvenient after-thought.” He went on to add, the U.S. Congress should factor in U.S. jobs in its decisions.

Tesla Inc, Alphabet, Uber Technologies Inc are some of the companies, amongst others, who have said they are working on self-driving trucks.

Following lengthy negotiations, congressional aides have managed to add language to the bill which is aimed at preserving legal rights to sue over defective vehicles, thus resolving a dispute that threatened to derail the bill entirely.

As per the bill, within three years, automakers will be allowed to sell up to 80,000 self-driving vehicles annually if they are able to demonstrate they are as safe as current vehicles.

Auto safety advocates complained it lacked sufficient safeguards.

The phase-in schedule was revised to initially allow 15,000 per manufacturer in the first year and up to 80,000 after three years, down from 50,000 to start and up to 100,000 in three years. It would eliminate the cap after four years.

The bill also grants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) authority to exempt vehicles from federal safety requirements and the agency would have to make a determination within six months of getting a request.

According to the Self-Driving Coalition, a group of automakers, tech firms and advocates for the disabled, the legislation “will help ensure that the United States leads the world in self-driving innovation.”

The bill requires companies to disclose the kind of information self-driving cars are collecting on individuals and how these will be used, including an option for consumers to opt out of data collection.

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