We still can’t agree how to regulate self-driving cars

There was a sense of déjà vu on Capitol Hill today as a House panel convened yet another hearing on how to best regulate autonomous vehicles. But it wasn’t clear that any of the issues that sunk the previous effort had actually been resolved — which may mean that we’re headed for a very similar conclusion.

A quick recap in case you forgot: the Republican-controlled House of Representatives unanimously passed the SELF DRIVE Act in 2017, which would speed the adoption of self-driving cars and bar states from setting performance standards. But a complementary bill in the Senate, AV START, failed to pass after Democrats raised objections that it didn’t do enough to address safety and liability concerns.

Late last year, a bipartisan contingent in both the Senate and House began meeting to revive the effort. The hope was that with Democrats in control of the House, a bill could be crafted that addressed many of those concerns.

That bill, though, is still in the works, and today’s hearing laid bare many of the same problems that plagued the original effort. Auto and tech industry representatives want more leeway to manufacture and deploy vehicles that lack traditional controls, like steering wheels, sideview mirrors, and pedals. That means raising the cap on the number of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard exemptions given out each year from 2,500 per company to 10,000 per company. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just handed out its first autonomous vehicle exemption to a California-based company called Nuro last week.) And they want to preempt states and cities from passing laws regarding autonomous vehicles.

On the flip side are safety advocates, trial lawyers, and local officials who maintain that the promise of self-driving cars to reduce road deaths is just that — a promise. They argue the technology is not ready for prime time, and they want Congress to empower regulators at NHTSA to require more data from autonomous vehicle operators, such as crash reporting and disengagements of the self-driving software. Trial lawyers want to get rid of forced arbitration rules that could prevent consumers from bringing injury or safety claims against companies.

The trial lawyers, who have an enormously powerful lobbying group, have been blamed for sinking the previous effort to pass legislation. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) noted in his opening remarks that Democrats and Republicans worked to get the trial lawyers to sign off on the bill before it passed in the House, and were disappointed when that same lobbying group later opposed the bill in the Senate.

Others were less diplomatic in pinning the blame on the lawyers. Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, continuously lobbed bombs at his fellow witness, American Association for Justice’s Daniel Hinkle, during the course of the hearing, arguing that enabling self-driving cars to save lives was “more important than protecting lucrative contingency fee settlements for trial lawyers.”

Hinkle didn’t take the bait, instead highlighting General Motors’ notorious ignition switch scandal as an example of how trial lawyers uncover corporate malfeasance. In his testimony, he argued against federal preemption of state laws and for preventing companies from forcing consumers into arbitration hearings. “Forced arbitration is a one-sided, secretive, and rigged system which effectively immunizes the company from all public accountability,” Hinkle said.

It was a clear sign that the same issues that plagued the last legislative effort had returned for this renewed effort. But it wasn’t all déjà vu. A new theme running through today’s hearing was the prospect of the US losing its edge in self-driving technology to China. Several lawmakers raised the specter of China overtaking the US as a call to speed up negotiations.

“There’s a global race for autonomous vehicles,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). “Do we want China to win that race? Or do we want to lead?”

To be sure, autonomous vehicle operators based in the US are way ahead of their competitors in China, in terms of on-road testing and miles traveled. But there is a regulatory imbalance that experts say could narrow the gap. China has a master plan to lead in next-generation technology, including autonomous vehicles. There are several Chinese companies in the race, including Baidu, Pony, TuSimple, and AutoX, that make great use of talent and resources in Silicon Valley to advance their capabilities. But the US still has the edge.

“Waymo, of course, way out in front of everyone,” Michael Dunne, who runs the automotive consulting group ZoZo Go, told The Verge. “But these Chinese outfits are led by US-educated Chinese people with a global reach and mindset … Where China could race ahead is in regulations around data collection and swapping measures to convert roads and even cities to all autonomous.”

Others see the US-vs.-China rhetoric as a red herring. “I would love to see a [Chinese] AV tested against a US AV and then we might have some real evidence as to who is really ahead in the [artificial intelligence] race,” Missy Cummings, director of Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, told The Verge in an email. “My bet is that they both would fail equally spectacularly. Our biggest threat is not that China is ahead in AI, it’s that in our rush to get ahead in AI, we will field some really terrible/lethal systems with embedded incompetent AI.”

This nuance was largely lost amid the fear mongering from lawmakers and stakeholders about China’s imminent dominance in autonomous vehicles — though Alliance for Automotive Innovation president John Bozzella did make one attempt at a clarification. “I do think we have a lead right now,” said Bozzella, whose group represents major automakers like Ford, GM, BMW, Honda, Volkswagen, and Toyota. “My concern is we’re likely to stall if congressional action doesn’t go forward.”

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, noted that AV companies have the ability to test as many vehicles as they want on public roads in most states right now. “They can test unlimitedly right now,” Chase said. “There’s a big difference between testing and selling and deploying.”

There were other voices that emerged during the hearing. Jeff Tumlin, the director of transportation at San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, noted that the bulk of the companies working on self-driving cars are located within his jurisdiction. Citing the recent federal investigation into the fatal crash involving an Uber self-driving car, he urged lawmakers to require companies to install “black box”-like event data recorders in their cars to capture sensor data before and during inevitable crashes. And he pushed for the creation of a national database of safety incidents involving self-driving cars that would be available to the public.

One moment of levity came from Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, who noted that “100 percent of accidents today are caused by sighted drivers.” Riccobono supports mass deployment of autonomous vehicles, arguing that his community is eager to use self-driving cars to improve their own personal mobility.

Still, the sticking points that sunk the last bill remain the same: forced arbitration, exemptions, and federal preemption. Neither side seems to have moved much since the last round of hearings. And even if they did overcome their differences to pass a bill, it’s unclear that Congress would find a willing partner in President Trump.

Recent reports indicate that Trump is, at best, extremely ambivalent toward self-driving cars. As first reported by The Verge, his administration quietly terminated an Obama-era federal committee on automation in transportation last year. And the president has been cool on the technology in private conversations. “I would never get in a self-driving car … I don’t trust some computer to drive me around,” Trump is reported to have said to an enthusiastic new Tesla owner in 2017.

That could change, though, given the president’s predilection toward big donors. A recent recording of a dinner Trump held with big-dollar donors in 2018 surfaced amid the recently failed impeachment effort, during which a trucking company owner lobbied the president to support the construction of a 500-mile highway just for self-driving trucks.

We don’t know how the president responded, but let’s not forget that Trump likes trucks.