House takes on future of driving and passes self-driving car bill

Watch Waymo's self-driving cars practice around emergency vehicles
Watch Waymo's self-driving cars practice around emergency vehicles

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are taking the first big steps to write federal rules for self-driving vehicles.

The House of Representatives passed the Self Drive Act unanimously Wednesday. The bill addresses a lingering question over how the federal government and states will regulate self-driving vehicles.

Traditionally, the federal government has regulated vehicle safety, and states have handled vehicle operations, such as issuing driver licenses. But with a fully autonomous vehicle, the car becomes the driver, disrupting how regulation has long worked.

Automakers and tech companies have warned of a potential patchwork of rules, where 50 states deliver 50 different sets of rules for self-driving vehicles. This would hamper the ease and pace at which autonomous technology is rolled out, likely slowing the expected safety benefits.

The AFL-CIO, which represents transportation workers who will be affected by the technology, cautioned Wednesday about rushing the technology out. It called for more deliberation and input on the impact of driverless vehicles on jobs and wages. Autonomous vehicles are expected to disrupt the work of millions who drive for a living.

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The House bill exempts a limited number of self-driving cars from federal rules. Initially, 25,000 self-driving vehicles will be allowed. The cap would gradually grow to 100,000 after three years. Automakers would first have to prove to NHTSA that their vehicles are safe. States would generally be pushed to the side.

A number of state associations expressed concerns in a letter Tuesday that the bill expands federal pre-emptions, and limits their role in regulating vehicle operations. But these issues haven't held up the bill in the House.

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Autonomous vehicle regulation remains a hot topic with many moving parts. A separate autonomous vehicle bill is in the works in the U.S. Senate, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is reportedly announcing updated self-driving guidelines next week.

Automakers and tech companies are spending billions to develop technology that is expected to be worth trillions. Many have announced plans to make self-driving vehicles available in 2020.

Today, there are some limited pilots of self-driving vehicles happening in the United States and other countries such as a Singapore.

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