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AV START Act Unanimously Clears US Senate Commerce Committee

October 6, 2017 Robert Fischer, GTiMA President & Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor

After an early dispute over trucking, the counterpart to the bill that passed in the US House last month —- the AV START Act — has moved out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

The bill, which will broadly expand testing of AVs by permitting the federal government to allow federal safety standards exemptions to manufacturers based on production volume, has earned headlines based on that fact alone. But the bill was heavily amended during its time before the Commerce Committee, and we thought it would be useful to take a look at some of the amendments that were up for debate, as well as less-reported elements of the act.

Teamsters Win This Round, But Battle Isn’t Over

The Teamsters have been vocal about their opposition to this legislation having any application to trucking, and the ensuing debate was the biggest point of disagreement that this bill faced. Following a protracted battle between committee chairman Sen. Thune and an author of the bill, Sen. Peters, the legislation being passed now does not apply at all to trucks. There was an attempt by Sen. Inhofe to tack on an amendment during the committee vote to have it apply to trucking, which he withdrew due to a lack of majority support. However, Sen. Inhofe has declared that he will introduce a standalone bill to apply the new pro-testing rules to trucking. Lobbyists that have been in favor of including trucks in the AV Start Act have expressed concern that a standalone bill would cause a problem by putting the concern over employment and automation that ultimately resulted in striking trucks from this bill in an even brighter spotlight.

During the executive session, Sen. Inhofe strongly stressed that 87% of truck crashes are a result of human error, and that a majority of deadly highway crashes involve large trucks. “Testing trucks differently, when it comes to innovation, would be a major impediment,” he said. He noted that the American Trucking Association, along with most major players in the AV world (specifically mentioning Tesla, Uber, and Google) were all in favor of having the act apply to trucks.

Sen. Young spoke up and addressed the elephant in the room: that “this is about perceived job losses on account of automation. We’ve heard from experts that this can elevate the status of transportation jobs, we should own it and lean into that.”

There was agreement between Sens. Inhofe, Young and Thune that they would continue to press the issue moving forward. However, it’s impossible to say at his point whether or not such a push would be successful. Still, the issue isn’t settled and there is sure to be more debate.

Corridors & Infrastructure Must Be Studied

Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s amendment to the act, which was unanimously accepted, includes a provision that the Secretary of USDOT must initiate a study of AVs on transportation infrastructure as well as mobility, the environment, and fuel consumption, includes impacts on the interstate system, urban and rural areas, and corridors with heavy traffic congestion. The DOT secretary is charged with determining the need for any executive policy or legislative changes, specifically on impacts of, and the interaction between, AVs & infrastructure, including signage and pavement markings, traffic lights, highway capacity and design.

3M Gets a Big Shoutout On Infrastructure

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who worked with Duckworth on the above amendment, is very interested in the issue of how AVs will interact with intelligent infrastructure. (This was a sentiment expressed by many others during the proceedings; many senators said that safety was a legitimate concern because of the lack of V2I infrastructure deployed across the country). She referenced 3M’s work on highway infrastructure. Understandable, since they’re based in Minnesota. Chairman Thune echoed the fact that 3M has been very involved and interested and “has a real desire to work with us”. Other senators nodded.

Safety Advocates Force Smaller Exemption Numbers

The most impactful of Sen. Blumenthal’s many amendments (some of which were accepted) reflected a lobbying campaign by groups that were concerned about AV testing on public roads, and provisions that would allow phased-in sales of AVs. So those numbers have been cut. For the 12 months after the bill’s passage, safety-standard waivers for vehicles allowed for sale or interstate commerce has been cut from 50,000 to 15,000. For the year after that, the cut is from 75,000 to 40,000, and the year after that, 100,000 to 80,000, which will remain the cap for five years at that point.

HAV Data Access Advisory Committee To Be Created

Sen. Inhofe’s amendment, the “HAV Data Access Advisory Committee Act”, restricts any agency of federal government to promulgate any rules regarding ownership, control, or access to any data stored or generated by AVs until a newly-created HAV Data Access Advisory Committee is able to make a report.

The committee, which must be formed no later than 180 days after the bill becomes law, will be a forum for stakeholders to discuss and make recommendations to Congress regarding AV-generated data ownership, control and access. Within two years they’ll make recommendations (those that are supported by 2/3 of voting members) and are specifically charged with considering “motor vehicle safety, intellectual property protections, compliance with vehicles under the motor vehicle safety act, consumer privacy, cybersecurity, confidential business information related to AV systems, public safety and transportation planning.”

Sen. Markey saw a similar amendment be adopted, which calls for the creation of a Motor Vehicle Privacy Database via NHTSA, where individuals can publicly access and easily search for any personally identifiable information on themselves gathered by AVs, and to learn the period the information will be retained and when and how it would be destroyed.

Drivers Still Liable

The AV START act states that “compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard does not exempt a person from liability in common law.” So, at least for now, the drivers of safety-standard-exempted AVs could be held legally liable for any accidents that occur during testing until an updated law is passed.

SAE Standards Are Officially “the” Standards

Get used to talking about AVs in numeral terms: the section of the bill requiring automakers to report on their safety standards to NHTSA added the language “including its SAE level”, so it’s now a sure bet that we’ll be talking Level 3, Level 4, Level 5 from here on out.

US-Based Production and Solutions Preferred

Sen. Udall’s amendment requires the DOT secretary to initiate a study on encouraging manufacturing within the US of automated driving equipment, intelligent transportation solutions, and other equipment, including hardware and processors. The study is meant to focus on how grant money and other funding sources could incentivize US companies to produce enough to be world leaders on everything AV-related.

These are just some of the highlights. The bill, which is seen as a shoo-in to pass the Senate, will still need to be reconciled between the House and Senate before it reaches the President’s desk, so while these amendments likely represent the act taking shape in preparation for reconciliation and enactment, we will continue to monitor the progress of the AV START Act and report any significant changes.

Sources used for this update: the content of a live-streamed executive session, the text of the AV START Act, and the text of amendments, all of which were provided by the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation’s website.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.