More self-driving cars could soon be allowed on U.S. roads

An influential U.S. House committee has approved a bipartisan bill that would speed the deployment of self-driving cars without human controls and bar states from blocking autonomous vehicles.

Bill would allow automakers to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles in first year

The U.S. Congress is taking 'significant' steps toward allowing self-driving cars, such as those being developed by Boston-based software company nuTonomy, to tested by automakers in the United States. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

An influential U.S. House committee has approved a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for companies to test and deploy self-driving cars without human controls and bar states from blocking autonomous vehicles.

The bill would allow automakers to obtain exemptions to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles without meeting existing auto performance standards in the first year, a cap that would rise to 100,000 vehicles annually over three years.

Automakers and technology companies believe chances are good Congress will approve legislation before year end. They have been pushing for regulations making it easier to deploy self-driving technology, while consumer groups have sought more safeguards.

Current federal rules bar self-driving cars without human controls on U.S. roads and automakers think proposed state rules in California are too restrictive.

1st major U.S. legislation

The measure, the first significant federal legislation aimed at speeding self-driving cars to market, would require automakers to submit safety assessment reports to regulators, but would not require pre-market approval of advanced vehicle technologies.

The House of Representatives will take up the bill when it reconvenes in September, while senators plan to introduce a separate similar measure.

"Our aim was to develop a regulatory structure that allows for industry to safely innovate with significant government oversight," said Rep. Greg Walden, who chairs the House energy and commerce committee.

Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Greg Walden says the U.S. Congress is attempting to to allow the auto industry to safely innovate while ensuring "significant" government oversight. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Initially, authors proposed to allow automakers and others to sell up to 100,000 vehicles immediately. Rep. Frank Pallone said the phase-in period was essential so "millions of exempted cars will not hit our roads all at once."

Manufacturers must demonstrate self-driving cars winning exemptions are at least as safe as existing vehicles.

Under the House proposal, states could still set rules on registration, licensing, liability, insurance and safety inspections, but could not set self-driving car performance standards.

Automakers praised committee passage, while Consumer Watchdog privacy director John Simpson said preempting state laws "leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories."

New urgency

General Motors Co., Alphabet Inc., Tesla Inc., Volkswagen AG and others have been lobbying for legislation to speed deployment of self-driving cars. Consumer advocates want more changes, including giving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration quicker access to crash data and more funding to oversee self-driving cars.

Automakers such as Volkswagen AG have been lobbying the U.S. government for legislation that would allow them to more easily deploy self-driving cars on American roads. (Christian/Charisius)

The issue has taken on new importance since U.S. road deaths rose 7.7 per cent in 2015, the highest annual jump since 1966.

Automakers say that without changes in regulations, U.S. self-driving car testing could move to Europe and elsewhere.