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Congress is about to hand over the keys to the big self-driving car companies — and that’s a problem

Congress is about to hand over the keys to the big self-driving car companies — and that’s a problem


‘It is negligent and dangerous to dump one million autonomous cars on the public with no stringent test requirements’

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Uber Self-Driving Car Program Resumes After Crash
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It was an unusual sight: Democrats and Republicans gently ribbing each other, giggling, and vowing to work closely together on legislation that is said to be vital to the health and safety of Americans. Of all the things that could bring both parties together in this era of rank partisanship, who would have thought it would be self-driving cars?

The convivial atmosphere in today’s hearing by the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection, which was to mark-up a package of bills related to autonomous vehicles, was by design. After all, it was carefully cultivated by the big automakers and tech companies that are working furiously on autonomous driving technology. These companies want to ensure their interests are protected as legislation to regulate this emerging industry moves closer to a vote. And some critics think that this industry-friendly approach by Congress could come at the expense of consumer safety and transparency.

“Companies are pouring significant money into lobbying efforts.”

“I do think the chumminess is due to industry pressure,” said Missy Cummings, a former naval pilot who runs Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory. “Companies are pouring significant money into lobbying efforts for both sides, so I think you are seeing this influence in how quickly these bills are being pushed through.”

The bills would allow automakers and tech firms to deploy hundreds of thousands of self-driving vehicles onto the road without having to adhere to existing safety standards. The legislation would also preempt states from passing their own laws regulating driverless cars, which the industry argues is necessary to avoid a patchwork of state rules. The subcommittee approved the sweeping proposal by voice vote Wednesday, but the full House of Representatives will not take up the bill until it reconvenes in September after the summer recess.

Cummings, who has testified at multiple congressional hearings on the subject of autonomous vehicles, said she is frustrated by the lack of attention being paid to safety issues as these bills move through the process. “I am concerned that they do not do enough for safety,” she said.

“I am concerned that they do not do enough for safety.”

For example, Congress is weighing whether to make the disclosure of accident data involving driverless cars voluntary, with only the requirement to revisit these rules in five years. The big companies are pushing back against efforts to make data disclosures mandatory, arguing it could stifle competition. But Cummings disagrees. “It is negligent and dangerous to dump one million autonomous cars on the public with no stringent test requirements, and with no formal intervention for five years,” Cummings argued.

John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog and a vocal critic of autonomous vehicles, took it a step further. “Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the void left by federal inaction leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” he said in a recent statement.

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It’s unclear how much the big companies are spending on lobbying these bills. Most firms don't put a lot of detail into their public disclosure reports in order to keep their competitive advantage. But it was clearly an important enough issue to warrant the creation of an entirely new lobbying organization: the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. The group is funded by Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo, and Waymo (née Google), and is run by David Strickland, a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Nearly 40,000 lives are lost in road crashes each year and nearly 94 percent of those crashes are caused by human error,” Strickland said in a statement commending the subcommittee for approving the legislation. “By removing humans from behind the wheel, self-driving vehicles offer the opportunity to save lives and enhance mobility.”

Congress clearly accepts, with little skepticism, the industry argument that self-driving cars will automatically equal fewer road deaths. And who can blame them? When you have a powerful billionaire like Elon Musk equating negative press reports about autonomous vehicles to murder, its clear that the debate over self-driving cars has gotten a little hysterical. Autonomous cars need to be proven to be safer before these arguments can be accepted, but Congress seems ready to take companies like Tesla at their word.

Congress clearly accepts, with little skepticism, the industry argument

Keeping track of what these companies want from Congress can be difficult without watching their representatives closely as they testify on panels or read their comments on proposed state rules. Greg Rogers is a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation who has been tracking the legislative process closely. Rogers said that Waymo has pushed the hardest for permission to deploy more vehicles that lack steering wheels, brake pedals, and other components designed with humans in mind and required by federal safety standards.

Meanwhile, every major automaker and tech firm is pushing to bar states from imposing new driverless car rules. “With as many as 18 states having enacted [autonomous vehicle] laws or executive orders, they're concerned that expanding their testing and pilot projects is only becoming more difficult,” Rogers said.

Rogers disagrees with the sentiment that members of Congress haven’t done enough due diligence in crafting their legislation. “It isn’t just lobbyists that legislators have met with, but countless other organizations, from industry representatives to safety advocates to people with disabilities to state departments of transportation,” he said. 

“They’ve even invited automakers and tech firms to the Capitol to show them their [autonomous vehicles] in person and provide them with test rides to fully understand the technology,” Rogers continued. “If anything, it’s reassuring that legislators have been asking a lot of hard questions at the hearings to make sure that they understand the technology.”

Some see it as a positive step that members of Congress can set aside their deep ideological differences and come together to pass legislation to encourage more autonomous vehicles to hit the road. Disability advocates, for example, want give people who have traditionally been unable to drive access to this technology as soon as possible.

Self-driving cars still have difficulty navigating certain aspects of the road

But Cummings says that these advocates and other supporters are underestimating the technology’s road-readiness. Self-driving cars still have difficulty navigating certain aspects of the road, such as bicyclists and motorcyclists. They can be susceptible to hacking and, as some cases, their sensors can be tricked into seeing things that aren’t there.

“The example I have been giving everyone is that I have yet to see a driverless car system that can operate in construction zones on highways,” Cummings said. “They can’t see the cones, they do not understand flags and the merging of lanes.”

Roadside personnel, like construction workers, first responders, and state troopers could be “at serious risk around these vehicles,” she added. “Indeed, I have tried to get lawmakers to put special provisions for these vulnerable populations into such bills, but as of now, no one is listening to me.”