NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the U.S. Congress moves quickly to pass the first federal law governing self-driving cars, some state and city officials are pushing back over fears that the measure will limit their ability to regulate vehicle safety at the local level.
The debate highlights the challenges of rolling out a new technology that does not fit neatly into an existing regulatory framework. States traditionally regulate the driver while the federal government regulates the car, but that division of labor may be hard to maintain when cars have no drivers.
Industry officials say a single, nationwide set of standards would speed the development of self-driving vehicle technology, extremely lead to fewer highway deaths, and keep the United States in the forefront of automotive technology.
The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved the sweeping bill last week, and U.S.. Senator John Thune said on Wednesday he wanted to move the bill out of committee by early October.
The federal bill bars states and cities from implementing "unreasonable restrictions" on the rollout of self-driving cars. Critics say the vague language could lead the industry to sue states over any regulations that they consider overly burdensome.
"If Congress preempts state and local governments from enacting smart safety protections, the adoption of this amazing technology could have been unnecessarily delayed by court challenges and state legislative action," said Leah Treat, director of the transport bureau in Portland, Oregon, which is set to enact its own self-driving regulations by the end of the year.
In a Sept. 5 letter to US. congressional leaders, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislators and other groups said the federal rules encroached on state authority and urged federal lawmakers to change the bill's language.
The new measure authorizes manufacturers to put 25,000 self-driving cars on the road in the next year for testing. Those numbers would gradually increase, with a total of 275,000 vehicles allowed by 2021.
Critics of the federal bill said they generally support the development of self-driving technology but felt neglected and overruled by federal legislators.
"California, for example, has higher emission standards," said Jennifer Cohen, government affairs director for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. "Does the federal preemption exclude us from enabling these? Can we still protect our school zones?"
FEDERAL VS. STATE
Although fully-autonomous cars are still years away from widespread adoption, 25 states have already passed legislation or issued executive orders relating to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
New York, for example, has taken a strict approach to testing, requiring self-driving cars to follow an approved route with a police escort. The state also has a law that requires drivers to have at least one hand on the wheel of any car, although it was suspended until April 2018 to accommodate automatic vehicle testing.
Data-sharing is also a major flashpoint. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said earlier this year he was disappointed Uber, which is testing a fleet of autonomous vehicles there, has been hesitant to share data the city could use to improve traffic flow and infrastructure.
Uber said it would share some data starting this year on a voluntary basis, but Chan Lieu, a former director of governmental affairs at NHTSA who is now an adviser to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which includes Ford, Alphabet's Waymo, Volvo Cars, Uber and Lyft, said the companies would oppose broad data disclosure requirements.