Congress and Auto Industry Move to Ban Cities From Regulating Self-Driving Cars

Autonomous vehicles should benefit cities, not the other way around, but legislation advancing through Congress would tie urban officials' hands when it comes to shaping AV policy.

Photo:  zombieite/Flickr
Photo: zombieite/Flickr

Automakers and tech companies are pushing a bill through Congress that would handcuff local governments’ ability to regulate self-driving vehicles on city streets. Now city transportation officials are demanding a role in drafting legislation before it’s too late.

The stakes are high. Shaping autonomous vehicle systems to meet city needs could cut congestion, reduce traffic deaths and injuries, and free up scarce urban space for more pressing needs than car storage. Or the regulatory framework could introduce new hazards and place additional restrictions on people’s movement while walking or biking.

Legislation is moving quickly through Congress. The House of Representatives held a June 27 subcommittee hearing on a package of 14 bills regulating self-driving cars, then consolidated them into a single bill, which a House subcommittee voted for last week 54-0. The bill is on its way to the House floor while the Senate prepares similar legislation.

The House bill, HR 3388, would allow each car manufacturer to test up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles on public roads, a 40-fold increase from the 2,500 allowed today. Vehicle manufacturers would self-certify their autonomous vehicles with the U.S. Department of Transportation, without an independent review of the technology’s safety.

The bill would also prohibit state and local governments from regulating the “design, construction, mechanical systems, hardware and software systems, or communications systems” of autonomous vehicles. That would render the more hands-on regulations in states like California obsolete.

The “Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets,” which is backed by the tech and auto industries, argues the legislation is a key step to forming a “single, national framework for self-driving vehicles.”

But the bill has raised red flags with city officials, environmental watchdogs, and advocates for safe walking and biking. Transportation for America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and the National League of Cities have banded together to call for changes to the bill.

“The draft bill handcuffs our transportation leaders, revoking their ability to unlock the transformative potential from this innovative technology,” NACTO said in a statement. “This is akin to trusting the fox to protect the hen house, and would clear the way for automakers and tech companies to deploy hundreds of thousands of automated vehicles without adhering to stringent safety standards.”

[Update: Some but not all of NACTO’s concerns about the draft bill were addressed before it passed out of committee. The amended bill preserves the ability of local governments to regulate several aspects of autonomous vehicle operation, but NACTO says that language remains too vague.]

Representatives for cities haven’t been at the table as the regulations take shape. The legislation may mean that cities lose “the ability to regulate their own roads,” according to Russell Brooks at Transportation for America.

Another big concern is the vagueness of the bill’s language, which leaves too much room for interpretation. The bill prohibits the sale of fully autonomous vehicles, for example, but according to Brooks that could leave open the possibility that unproven technology will be used by the general public as part of a commercial “testing scenario,” like the one Waymo launched earlier this year in Arizona.

The city-aligned coalition is calling for better representation and transparency. The groups want guaranteed seats for state and local governments on the automated vehicle advisory council proposed in the House bill, and a legal mandate that data on self-driving car performance will be open to the public.

This post was updated on August 7, 2017, to reflect the fact that the House bill was amended before passing out of committee.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I suspected they wanted to kill cities, but not the pedestrians and bicyclists in them.

    “The legislation is a key step to forming a “single, national framework for self-driving vehicles.”

    Hempstead Turnpike.

  • 1976boy

    Well cities can then limit the number of streets that cars can use at all, or reduce lanes accordingly

  • Michel S

    This is the correct approach. It’s not about self-driving cars vs. human-driven cars, it’s about the over-dependence on private automobiles for transportation in dense human environments. The method of operation is irrelevant.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    The sooner they get the demented morons out of their killing machines the better.

  • Larry Littlefield

    My one concern is that we’ll end up with AVs that are less likely to get in severe crashes with other AVs, but more likely to hit and kill or main pedestrians and cyclists.

    For example, the occupant of an AV, faced with another hard motor vehicle that has run a light, would be more likely to be injured in a crash with that vehicle than it would striking a bunch of nice soft humans on the sidewalk. So which would it do?

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    A self-driving car may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

    A self-driving car must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

    A self-driving car must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

  • AMH

    Test masses of private vehicles on PUBLIC roads? “Self-certify” safety? Good Lord.

  • Maggie

    It seems like unless we use congestion pricing or fair VMT charges, Level 5 autonomous cars will repurpose ALL urban streetspace for free parking, virtually overnight.

    Am I looking at this wrong?

  • reasonableexplanation

    You are!

    A good portion of the population uses their cars just enough to make renting or taking a cab each time uneconomical, but only slightly.

    Once self driving’s a thing many of these folks will just use something like a driverless uber service and no longer own their own car. Expect less cars overall to do a lot more driving, and hence less cars parked everywhere.

    This is what the big automakers are currently planning for come 2021 or so. They expect new car sales to plummet.

  • tomwest

    How does it choose between harm to the occupants vs. harm to people outside the vehicle?

  • crazytrainmatt

    Exactly. Driverless cars increase the capital cost of the car but reduce the marginal cost of driving. We will therefore get more driving as a result. Carsharing might help on weekends or for late-night bar hopping but will do nothing at rush hour. Most productive cities have no excess highway capacity in the peak direction and there is huge latent demand for below-cost CBD parking. There will be no car sharing since everyone ends up traveling the same direction at the same time. The worst case scenario is that everyone sends their personal car back to the suburbs to park, doubling VMT and ensuring a bidirectional rush hour.

  • crazytrainmatt

    I think you’re spot-on, but the focus on the moral calculus is a distraction. If you want to imagine the safety record of driverless cars, picture putting your typical office PC into a car. These cars are being pioneered by a consumer electronics culture with yearly product cycles, not the fail-safe, human factors, continuous improvement engineering culture of modern aviation.

    Limited-access highway driving will be far easier to automate safely. Cities will require major reconfiguration at the expense of everyone else to accommodate the limited capabilities of autonomous driving. The scenario you describe will happen either on purpose or accidentally, and there will be calls to make the streets safe for driverless cars.

    The rules will be set by the feds with input from the large car companies. Cities and carless citizens will not have a seat at the table. Rather than turning highways into parks, think more of the pedestrian pens on 5th Ave and beg buttons at the stoplights. Look at the urban freeway era, which suggests that speed and convenience will be prioritized over safety of those outside the car.

    Perhaps the only lynchpin is to prevent any proposal shielding manufacturers from liability. This could lead to geofencing around areas like NYC until they are ready to accept cars on better terms.

  • Michael DeKort

    Lockheed Martin Engineer/Whistleblower

    Significant safety issues with Public Shadow Driving for AI and Key Scenario and Sensor Safety Levels not established

    It is good that the federal government determined they should set core standards. But then deferring to industry to determine them is not a good idea.

    I guaranty these officials believe that this tech is much father along than it is, have no idea how many problems public shadow driving will cause as these companies move from benign scenarios to complicated, dangerous and accident scenarios or how many problems will occur if these systems operate differently vehicle to vehicle regarding system operation and their handling of core scenarios.

    Issues with Public Shadow Driving
    1. Miles and Cost – One Trillion Miles and $300B
    2. Injuries/Casualties of Public Shadow Driving
    3. Injuries and Casualties caused in Complex, Dangerous and Accident Scenarios
    4. AI – Machine Learning – Neural Networks have Inherent Flaws.
    (The solution is use of aerospace level simulation)

    Areas the federal government needs to set base standards for
    1. Scenarios – to cover all the core normal and hazardous scenarios
    2. Sensor quality and redundancy in all conditions
    3. Systems operated the same vehicle to vehicle. Like cruise control is now. We cannot have the engagement and disengagement of the systems be different vehicle to vehicle
    4. Scenarios handled the same. Key scenarios have to be handled the same in very vehicle or people will either take over or not take over the systems based on an expectation they may have from another vehicle.

    I provide far more detail here. Please search LinkedIn for the article containing the letter I am sending to congress

    Letter to Congress – Handling of minimum standards for autonomous industry

  • Kevin Withers

    Cities may be involved in regulating some streets and parking, but they’ve never been involved in regulating vehicles. The notion that future vehicle regulations should/would be crafted by cities seems a somewhat fanciful dream of urbanists. Thankfully state/federal agencies will not let that mistake happen. Sanity prevails.

  • Daniel

    hidden Zeroth Law: A self-driving car may not harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm