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Automakers are seeking broad exemptions from safety rules for self-driving cars

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And so far, the federal government seems cool with it

Max Jeffrey

Major automakers are pushing Congress to change the rules regarding vehicle safety to speed the deployment of self-driving cars, according to Reuters. And elected officials from both sides of the aisle appear to be on board, aiming to craft legislation that would relax regulations on autonomous vehicles.

Currently, the federal government requires that all vehicles must have steering wheels and brake pedals before if they are to be sold to customers. This presumes there will be a human driver, which automakers argue won’t always be the case.

On Tuesday, a House panel will hold a hearing on self-driving cars, at which executives from major car companies like GM, Volvo, and Toyota plan to testify that the current regulatory landscape may slow down the speed of innovation surrounding driverless technology.

Current federal motor vehicle standards “do not contemplate vehicles without human drivers,” Michael Abelson, VP for global strategy at GM, plans to testify. “Without changes to those regulations, it may be years before the promise of today’s technology can be realized and thousands of preventable deaths that could have been avoided will happen.”

Abelson said that Congress should grant the US secretary of transportation, recently confirmed Elaine Chao, the power to grant exemptions for highly automated vehicle development. Under current law, the Department of Transportation can exempt up to 2,500 vehicles in a 12-month period from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration vehicle rules. Automakers are seeking to lift that cap.

Exempting GM from some of these rules, for example, could clear the company to start offering rides in its fleet of self-driving electric Bolts. “We are anxious for the public to be able to experience the technology first-hand,” Abelson said in his testimony.

Relatedly, GM’s partner in self-driving, the ride-hailing company Lyft, says it plans to launch a pilot program in a major US city sometime this year using self-driving cars. “It is our goal to operate a pilot in a major city this year that will permit consumers to enjoy, for the first time, a Lyft in an autonomous vehicle,” Joseph Okpaku, Lyft’s VP of government relations, will testify Tuesday.

All these companies are seeking to avoid the type of conflict that Uber encountered late last year when it was ordered by the California DMV to halt its self-driving experiment in San Francisco after failing to obtain a license for automated testing.

The feds are also seeking to avoid a patchwork of rules for self-driving cars, but also want car and tech companies working on self-driving technology to share more data with the government than they normally do. Last September, NHTSA released the first rulebook governing the manufacture and sale of self-driving cars — everything from nearly autonomous Teslas to Google cars without steering wheels or foot pedals.

Building on that, two US senators announced today their intent to introduce a bill that would make it easier to deploy fully self-driving cars on public roads. In a joint statement, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said they were particularly interested in legislation “to improve regulatory flexibility for testing and development of self-driving vehicles without changes to regulations that would affect conventional autos.”