WASHINGTON—Five senators control the fate of pending legislation governing self-driving vehicles. Their ability to block the bipartisan AV START Act from getting passed has put them at the center of lobbying efforts by opponents and supporters.
A diverse coalition of businesses and disability groups that favor the proposed safety performance rules for autonomous vehicles is gearing up to influence one of the key lawmakers who have placed a hold on the bill: Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
At a meeting March 15, the 105 coalition members were encouraged to contact the California Democrat's offices by the end of the Easter recess on April 6 and make the case for the AV START Act, Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told Automotive News. The partnership includes auto makers, car rental companies, representatives from the telecommunications and electronics industries, and groups such as the National Federation of the Blind.
Proponents are eager to address Feinstein's concerns, as well as those of four other Democrats, Bergquist said.
Developing regulations to implement laws governing self-driving vehicles will take several years to promulgate, "so the sooner we get started on it, the sooner we get to a future with all the benefits," Bergquist said.
During the week of March 5, the coalition sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and bought a two-page ad in the newspaper Politico, urging lawmakers to pass the AV START Act.
On March 14, the five Democratic senators wrote Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., to publicly restate their concerns with the bill and make clear to its sponsors that they are open to lifting their holds if their recommendations are accommodated.
Feinstein remains uncomfortable with the safety of autonomous vehicles and whether they are ready for large-scale testing on public roads. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wants self-driving vehicles for the time being to have a safeguard allowing a human to retake control of the vehicle in an emergency, while Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has expressed concerns about autonomous vehicle software systems being hacked and consumers' data privacy.
The other two Democrats voicing concerns about the bill are Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Tom Udall of New Mexico.
The crowded legislative schedule makes it difficult to get floor time for a vote, so bill sponsors are trying to get commitments of support from every senator, so the measure can be passed by unanimous consent without a formal debate. If debate is allowed, senators who object would have the power to raise those objections and stymie the process.
Meanwhile, an alliance of public interest groups last week also wrote Senate leaders urging them to not loosen motor vehicle safety standards for autonomous vehicles until more safeguards are included. They said auto and tech companies are making exaggerated claims about how soon self-driving technology will be ready for mass deployment and the need for regulatory relief in order to create urgency for passage of the bill.
The groups object to the tens of thousands of exemptions from existing safety standards each automaker could receive to operate autonomous vehicles on public roads, provisions that pre-empt states from regulating automated vehicle performance, and the leeway auto developers will have to disable vehicle systems to test self-driving functions.
You can reach Eric Kulisch at [email protected]