Congress wants to clear road for self-driving in every state

Self Driving Audi A7

Self Driving Audi A7

Nearly 80 bills in 30 states are winding their ways through state legislatures to tackle just one issue: self-driving cars.

That’s become a significant burden for the auto industry and legislators who are eager to usher in safer cars for public roadways, Congress heard this week.

On Wednesday, the Senate commerce and transportation committee met to discuss unifying several of those proposals under one potential federal bill that could speed up development of self-driving cars.

“The future is here but will take a while to be fully realized. Few debate where we are headed. However, there is significant debate about the length and even nature of this journey,” said Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a large automotive lobby in Washington.

“As we meet today, the U.S. lacks a critical uniform national framework to advance these technologies as was established before in the development of other key innovations,” he added.

Senator Jim Thune (R-S.D.) told the committee that self-driving cars would be coming, and the current patchwork of regulations from state-to-state could inhibit, or even prevent, some of those cars from being eligible for sale in the U.S.

For instance, the 2019 Audi A8 may be the first publicly available Level 3 self-driving car on sale in the U.S., but its functionality could be limited—or even prohibited—depending on the state.

According to Audi, the A8 will drive itself for long stretches at 35 mph or slower, on a divided highway, in heavy traffic. The current A4 and Q5 are capable of similar feats, albeit for less than a minute before the car requests driver intervention.

Even driving from Boston to New York next year in the Audi A8 could be tricky. New York law requires driver attention at all times; Massachusetts law isn’t as stringent.

MUST READ: Audi A8 to be first with “Level 3” self-driving capability, but regulations holding back tech

This week, Audi chauffeured New York state officials in self-driving A7 models to showcase the technology—albeit behind police escorts.

Audi spokesman Mark Dahncke said offering the A8 with Level 3 technology, which Audi calls “Traffic Jam Pilot,” would be ideal: “However, we can only bring it to market if the regulatory environment will support it. Our testing license in NY is a good example of Audi leading the way to make Traffic Jam Pilot a reality.”

Thune, along with U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) announced a basic framework that would codify the patchwork of laws and potentially provide more federal exemptions for self-driving technology.  

Included in that bill may be provisions to help shield automakers from liability if self-driving cars are modified, or used in ways not originally intended. A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said states are required now to set insurance limits for autonomous car testing.

It’s expected that a Senate version of a bill will arrive in the coming weeks, and a House version shouldn’t be far off.

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