Politics

New pitch for federal robocar legislation: Social distance through self-driving

Autonomous vehicle companies are the latest to seek a change of fortune by branding their tech with the COVID-19 stamp of public good.

Cruise

AV companies are pushing federal legislation that could accelerate the adoption of self-driving technology.

Photo: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Energized by the sales pitch that autonomous vehicles are not only driverless but in some ways contactless, a growing number of Republicans and industry players are seeking to use the coronavirus crisis to push Congress to finally pass national rules for the technology. The backers hope a federal framework could boost investment and speed the introduction of self-driving cars, which have been stuck in a mire of regulatory, technological and safety issues.

For four long years, lawmakers have fought bitterly over legislation, hitting roadblock after roadblock amid partisan bickering: Republicans, backed by the tech and auto industries, want to cut red tape and create one overriding federal standard. Democrats, backed by safety advocates and lawyers, want to go as far as possible to ensure that autonomous vehicles are safe — and that their makers can be sued if they're not.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak triggered mass quarantines, lobbyists had begun to turn away from Congress. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, created by Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo Cars and Waymo, reported no federal lobbying activity in the first three months of 2020, after spending $50,000 over the same quarter last year. Now, COVID-19 has kickstarted the conversation. AV companies are sensing opportunity in D.C. while demonstrating in real time the potential for contact-free delivery, facilitating thousands of essential deliveries in small pockets across the country.

The coronavirus crisis "spotlights a way that AVs can be a public good, in a way that nobody could have imagined even a few months ago," said Eric Danko, the director of federal affairs for Cruise, GM's AV division.

Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, agreed, telling Protocol in a statement, "The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated real-world applications of AV technology. Whether it be to deliver meals and packages to seniors or to support our health care workers on the front lines, AVs are being put to work." He said Congress "must create a federal framework for the safe development and deployment of AVs."

The effort is somewhat opportunistic, making self-driving companies the latest to seek a change of fortune by branding their tech with the COVID-19 stamp of public good. The issues challenging the AV movement, which could fundamentally change the way people travel, go far beyond the promotion of social distancing. Consumer and safety advocates remain broadly skeptical, and fully autonomous vehicles are years away from negotiating freeways and busy downtowns. Existing AVs are still mostly in the early phases of testing and piloting.

But an enormous amount of money is at stake: Cruise recently predicted that the global autonomous vehicle industry is an $8 trillion market opportunity.

A spokesperson for the Democratic side of the Committee on Energy and Commerce declined to comment. But consumer advocates have already started to criticize AV backers for pushing controversial legislation amid the pandemic. Cathy Chase, the president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which includes consumer and law enforcement groups and insurance companies, criticized the industry for engaging in an "opportunistic power play" and "using a time of national crisis to advance their economic agenda."

But aides and lobbyists who have sunk years into the fight don't want to see the initiative fail yet again. In lieu of federal standards enacted by Congress, the industry worries it will have to wait years for the U.S. Department of Transportation to update its rules while navigating an increasingly complex web of state and local regulations emerging across the country. Most states have passed their own AV executive orders and laws, a fraught situation that allows fleets to test in certain states but not others. Of course, many local leaders feel they need such power to make sure self-driving technology is launched fairly and safely.

In February, Congress had, once again, seemed to be turning a corner in the battle over legislation. Aides, after a year of "four-corner negotiations" across the House and Senate, were disseminating text of what was said to be a bipartisan bill that incorporated safety measures and clarified the role of the federal government in overseeing AVs. Key lawmakers sounded optimistic about getting the legislation passed and signed into law this year. Then coronavirus hit, brushing aside talk about AVs as lawmakers churned out the unprecedented $2 trillion stimulus package and followup bills.

Nuro's R2 vehicle Nuro's second-generation R2 vehicle will deliver goods in a partnership with Kroger in Houston. Photo: Courtesy of Nuro

In recent days, however, companies and tech trade associations have peppered the Committee on Energy and Commerce with letters urging lawmakers not to forget about AVs as Congress barrels through this session. "As Congress considers longer-term solutions in response to this crisis, there is an opportunity to broaden the reach of contactless and driverless delivery," wrote Gary Shapiro, the president of the tech trade group Consumer Technology Association, in a May 5 letter to the committee. CTA has almost 2,000 members, including key players in the self-driving space: Uber, Lyft, Cruise, Nuro, Argo AI and more.

Proposed AV provisions, per drafts circulated to stakeholders, would ease a multitude of regulatory hurdles, potentially enabling companies to test and deploy tens of thousands more vehicles every year and overriding state laws. Lawmakers have not officially introduced the legislation, and the provisions they have circulated leave the most controversial issues unresolved. Though one industry lobbyist said aides are "on the verge of potentially putting a draft bill together," divisions are stark between Democrats and Republicans over interaction with state laws, rules on lawsuits and particulars of safety measures.

Though a similar AV measure passed the House in 2018, it stalled in the Senate, a sore subject for many involved. A separate bill also failed in the Senate. "Third time's the charm," said John Kwant, an AV lobbyist with Ford.

House GOP aides and industry lobbyists told Protocol the AV bill could be pushed through in one of the larger legislative packages moving this year, or as a standalone bill. Rolling the AV legislation into a larger package could make it likelier to pass — as long as the Republicans get support from Democrats. Partisan fighting over the bill has not let up, however.

"A lot of our guys are wondering, 'Why are we not moving something that everybody agreed was a good idea, saves lives and advances U.S. leadership?'" a GOP aide said.

It's been an exhausting fight. Republicans say they want one federal framework to enable more testing and deployment of AVs, arguing that the current setup hampers "innovation" and could prevent the industry from blooming. Democrats sound a far more cautious note, saying they want to ensure tough safety and liability standards before greenlighting any overriding federal rules.

In the meantime, AV makers are seeking to promote their altruistic projects. Cruise has facilitated more than 4,000 food and meal deliveries from two food banks in San Francisco since mid-April, with each vehicle staffed by two safety drivers, Danko said. "We're focused on developing the technology and playing a small part in the current crisis in terms of trying to fill an immediate need," he said.


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Nuro has launched two initiatives to provide contactless delivery to health care facilities in Sacramento and San Mateo, after receiving a federal exemption to produce driverless vehicles. Matthew Lipka, the federal lead for Nuro's AV policy team, said his company will deploy and test vehicles with or without legislation, but added that it would be useful if the Department of Transportation received "congressional guidance."

"We're cautiously hopeful that the legislation will move forward," Lipka said. He noted that "the technology is not going to scale for this pandemic," but that the crisis "has highlighted the importance of contactless delivery."

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