New reports indicate that both Republicans and Democrats are developing potential autonomous vehicle legislation to introduce in the 118th Congress. Democratic Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-Il) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI) are circulating a draft bill that (1) codifies current standing orders from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); (2) requires autonomous vehicle manufacturers to submit safety self-assessments; and (3) requires the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue a final rule outlining a comprehensive safety framework for autonomous vehicles.
An influential representative from Michigan and the Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Autonomous Vehicle Caucus, Dingell is a well-known and respected player in the automotive industry and brings years of expertise to the legislation’s development.
A fact sheet on the draft bill circulating Capitol Hill outlines other critical provisions of the draft legislation, including a clarification that the software supporting highly automated vehicles (HAV) should be considered the “driver” or “operator” under applicable law – a significant development for the future of liability in autonomous vehicle-involved accidents. Furthermore, the draft legislation would expand the number of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards exemptions the Secretary of Transportation can allow, per manufacturer, from 2,500 to 80,000 a year. The legislation would require the DOT to outline the process by which it would grant exemptions and would not allow public transportation vehicles to receive an exemption. The legislation, however, would not apply to commercial vehicles.
Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), the Republican Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Autonomous Vehicle Caucus, is also working on potential autonomous vehicle legislation. Latta’s bill more closely resembles the SELF DRIVE Act, a piece of legislation that passed the House of Representatives in 2017, but stalled in the Senate due to objections from the trial lawyers and organized labor.
These debates between automakers and trial lawyers regarding potential forced arbitration for individuals injured by autonomous vehicles has remained an issue for autonomous vehicle regulation at the Federal level every year. The new Dingell draft legislation would side with the trial lawyers and explicitly prohibit the enforceability of forced arbitration agreements or pre-dispute joint-action waivers. This puts a liability burden on automakers that they are unlikely to accept.
While the Dingell bill addresses one of the critical concerns hindering a comprehensive Federal framework for autonomous vehicles, automakers will almost certainly push back against the legislation, making the path forward for the bill in its current form extremely difficult. With a Republican-controlled House and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, any successful legislation would likely go through numerous rewrites to reach a bipartisan consensus.