Senators Seek to Attach Self-Driving Car Reprieve to China Bill

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Lawmakers pushing to allow U.S. automakers to sell as many as 80,000 self-driving cars apiece each year are trying to pin the fate of their measure to bipartisan legislation to enhance American competitiveness with China.

The measure backed by Democratic Senator Gary Peters, of Michigan, and Republican Senator John Thune, of South Dakota, seeks to provide U.S. safety regulators the authority to grant exemptions from motor vehicle safety standards that assume a human driver is controlling the vehicle -- only if the same level of safety is maintained.

The lawmakers want the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to be able to exempt 15,000 self-driving vehicles per manufacturer from human-driving safety standards, a number that would rise to 80,000 within three years. Currently, an automaker can produce 2,500 of the vehicles for testing only.

“As Congress works to craft a legislative package meant to confront China and bolster U.S. competitiveness on the global stage, I believe that our amendment, the American Vehicle Competitiveness Act of 2021, will do just that,” Thune said in a statement. He added that the measure to allow automakers to safely test and deploy automated vehicles “will create thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars in investment, not to mention the numerous safety benefits that AVs have the potential to provide.”

The two want to attach the measure as an amendment to the Senate version of the Endless Frontier Act, which may be put together by the Senate Commerce Committee as soon as next week. That bill has White House backing and bipartisan support in Congress. The lawmakers have teamed up on previous attempts to pass self-driving legislation in the Senate that failed.

Jason Levine, executive director of Center for Auto Safety, decried the effort to expand the number of self-driving cars that automakers are allowed to sell. “Throwing open the door to more unregulated testing and under-regulated sales without a strong oversight mandate is no way to bolster diminished public trust in driverless technology,” he said in an email.

Ariel Wolf, general counsel to the Self-Driving Coalition, which represents companies such as Ford Motor Co., Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and Waymo LLC, said the amendment “will pave the way for AV technology to save lives, unlock new economic and mobility opportunities, and promote American leadership and innovation in this globally competitive arena.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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