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Bipartisan senators try to jumpstart autonomous driving legislation

Senators Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan and John Thune, Republican of South Dakota are circulating draft language of their updated self-driving car legislation, in an attempt to free it from a four-year gridlock. Their strategy to jumpstart the stalled bill is to offer it as an amendment to a bipartisan measure aimed at increasing U.S. competitiveness with China during a committee hearing slated for next week.

Since 2017, Senators Thune and Peters have been calling for standards to be set for safety and cybersecurity requirements and for guidelines on determining accident liability if no one is driving.

"Since first introducing the bipartisan AV START Act with Senator Peters in 2017, I have remained committed to enacting automated vehicles legislation, which has the potential to greatly improve vehicle and pedestrian safety, enhance mobility, and bolster U.S. technological leadership," Thune said in a statement to CBS News Thursday. "Our amendment is about bolstering US technological leadership to ensure we stay ahead of China in development, manufacturing, and deployment of (autonomous vehicles). Government has to keep pace with this rapidly evolving industry to maintain global leadership." 

The new amendment would establish a Highly Automated Systems Safety Center of Excellence to review, assess and validate the safety of self-driving vehicles; expand testing exemptions to ensure vehicle manufacturers and manufacturers of automated driving systems are eligible; and give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the authority to expand exemptions for automated vehicles. But NHTSA would have to determine the autonomous vehicles have safety measures equal to those for traditional vehicles. 

Further, autonomous driving developers would be able to disable human driving controls in vehicles when in full self-driving mode.  The measure would require an equivalent level of safety be maintained if a human driver is not in control.

For example, a motor vehicle safety standard regulating the amount of pressure applied to the brake pedal by a human driver in order to active the brakes would not apply if an automated system were handling the braking, provided it ensured a safety level and response that is at least equivalent to the existing standard for a human driver.

In 2018 General Motors announced it would seek an exemption from vehicle safety standards to build self-driving cars without a steering wheel — a feature currently required in all cars but unnecessary if there's no human driving. Under these rules, GM would need to prove the car can operate as safely without a steering wheel as it would with one. 

"As this technology gets out on the road, we want to make sure it is safe, that it truly is ready for prime time," Peters said in 2017 when the measure was first introduced.  

The two senators believe self-driving cars will lead to safer roads, since the technology has the potential to eliminate the biggest factor in more than 90% of all crashes: human error.

"Hopefully we can all get around the fact that this is an incredibly exciting technology that's going to save literally tens of thousands of lives," Peters said in 2017.

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