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What you need to know about driverless bill

By: The Washington Post
September 10, 2017 Updated: September 10, 2017 at 1:33 pm
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FILE - This May 13, 2014 file photo shows a Google self-driving Lexus at a Google event outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Of the nearly 50 self-driving cars rolling around California roads and highways, four have gotten into accidents since September, 2014. That’s when the state officially began permitting these cars of the future, which use sensors and computing power to maneuver around traffic. Three accidents involved souped-up Lexus SUVs run by Google Inc. The fourth was an Audi retrofitted by the parts supplier Delphi Automotive. Google and Delphi said the accidents were minor and their cars were not at fault.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Thousands of self-driving cars are now that much closer to hitting the streets as House lawmakers approved a bill Wednesday to expand companies' ability to test the next-generation technology. It's a major step forward for tech companies, Detroit manufacturers and urban planners who believe automated cars will transform the economy. Here's what you need to know.

Question: What does this bill do?

Answer: The legislation basically attempts to lay out a, well, roadmap for the research and development of self-driving cars. Known as the Self Drive Act, the bill would let companies that are building self-driving cars apply for exemptions from the state and federal regulations that govern safety and design, potentially accelerating the deployment of cars that can navigate the streets themselves. Under the bill, auto makers could eventually add as many as 100,000 of these experimental cars to U.S. roads every year.

The Self Drive Act also requires auto makers to ensure that consumers and regulators are fully informed about the companies' approach to privacy and cybersecurity - a key concern after researchers have shown how easy it can be to remotely hack and commandeer major systems of even ordinary cars. And the legislation calls on the Department of Transportation to review its own regulations, many of which define a car by reference to, for example, steering wheels and brake pedals - language that may conflict with some automakers' desire to build cars without those features.

Question: But it's not quite law yet, right?

Answer: That's right. First the Senate must pass its own version of the legislation. It's not clear when that may happen, as Congress's agenda is filled this fall with high-priority items such as taxes and immigration, the latter of which gained even more urgency this week in the wake of President Trump's decision to end DACA, an Obama-era program that prevents the deportation of young immigrants.

Still, Senate lawmakers have expressed interest in moving ahead on self-driving car legislation. Members of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday announced a hearing to tackle the issue of self-driving trucks, which could disrupt the massive $724 billion-a-year trucking industry.

In a statement announcing the hearing, committee chairman John Thune, R-S.D. indicated that self-driving trucks could be exempted from legislation that targets passenger cars.

"Self-driving technology for trucks and other large vehicles has emerged as a pivotal issue in Congress' attempt to help usher in a new era of transportation," he said.

Question: What's the big deal about self-driving vehicles?

Answer: Policy experts cite the high rate of accidents caused by human error as a key flaw in today's mainstream vehicle technology. Roughly 95 percent of all car crashes are the result of human error, according to federal statistics. Because computers can react faster, juggle many variables simultaneously and make unemotional decisions, analysts say that self-driving cars could help prevent accidents and save lives.

And because self-driving cars could travel closer together without fear of fender-benders, they say, a world without human drivers may potentially reduce traffic jams, increase fuel economy (particularly if the cars are powered by electricity) and eliminate the need for parking in downtown areas because the cars could drive themselves home.

They may even reshape how we think about car ownership. As services such as Uber and Lyft have given consumers the ability to summon a vehicle instantaneously, many urban planners theorize that that model will contribute to a long-term decline in car ownership. Eventually, that may give way to the ability for consumers to pay a regular subscription fee for access to a self-driving vehicle that is owned, maintained and operated by third parties. Companies such as Google have begun exploring this approach by partnering with the Avis Budget Group, one of the country's biggest rental car firms.

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