US: Federal autonomous vehicle bill moves closer to passage

Federal autonomous vehicle legislation, previously stalled in the Senate, is revving its engine after Republican senators struck a deal with the American Association for Justice (AAJ) in an effort to secure outstanding Democratic votes.

Last September, the SELF Drive Act unanimously passed the US House of Representatives. Subsequently, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the Senate’s sister bill, the AV START Act. Senate action on the AV START Act, however, stalled due to concerns from several Democratic senators regarding federal preemption, forced arbitration, safety and cybersecurity.

If passed, the bill would increase the number of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety exemptions, spur an autonomous-directed update to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), require cybersecurity protections and preempt state laws regulating vehicle safety.

The support of the American Association for Justice, an influential trial lawyer advocacy group, is a welcome sign for the bill. The new-look legislation, circulated Monday night, was altered to reaffirm state and local authority over motor vehicle operation, mitigate concerns about the effect of federal preemption on state common law and statutory liability and constrain the use of pre-dispute arbitration clauses related to death or bodily injury.

In a message to the Senate the AAJ said, “our understanding is that the Senate proffer includes language which adequately preserves the right to bring a claim under state law, and sufficiently decreases the likelihood that the driverless car industry will be able to force Americans into arbitration.”

The support of trial lawyers could address the Senate Democrats’ concerns regarding preemption of state law. However, several senators also opposed the original bill on safety, privacy and cybersecurity grounds.

In an attempt to address their concerns, the new draft clarifies that NHTSA-exempt vehicles must maintain a level of overall safety, occupant protection and crash avoidance equal to or greater than traditionally compliant vehicles. Additionally, the draft requires a vehicle vision test and publicly available safety reports. It also clarifies that the “inoperative controls” section of the FMVSS does not allow manufacturers to bypass the exemption process, a clause many viewed as a potential loophole.

12. Dezember 2018

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