U.S. lawmakers hear arguments for new safeguards for self-driving cars

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. House panel on Tuesday heard from advocates of imposing stricter safeguards for self-driving cars as part of any effort to speed the adoption of the vehicles on U.S. roads.

At the same subcommittee hearing, groups representing automakers and tech companies touted benefits of autonomous vehicles and warned the United States risks falling behind China and other countries without new legal backing.

U.S. lawmakers have been divided for years over what consumer and legal protections should be added to any self-driving legislation. Significant divisions emerged at Tuesday’s hearing and officials say the effort faces tough odds to win approval before the end of 2020, even as aides plan to release additional discussion drafts of self-driving legislative proposals.

Automakers are eager to deploy commercial robotaxi fleets without human controls but none are expected until 2021 at the earliest.

Representative Frank Pallone, the Democrat who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said at the hearing “appropriate safeguards must be in place — protections to ensure self-driving cars operate safely and adhere to state and local law.”

Republicans argue autonomous vehicles are coming “and the question is whether we develop them here or not,” Representative Greg Walden said.

Jeffrey Tumlin, a San Francisco transportation official, testified Congress should require manufacturers to include event data recorders in autonomous vehicles to “preserve all information from sensors before a collision” and ensure “every safety incident involving an autonomous vehicle is documented in a national database.”

California requires companies testing self-driving cars to disclose all crashes involving the vehicles on public roads, even when under manual control. Those reports are made public as is data on disengagements of self-driving cars. Other states do not require disclosures.

John Bozzella, who heads an auto trade association representing General Motors Co, Toyota Motor Corp, Volkswagen AG VOWG_p.DE and others, said "the worst outcome would be for Congress to delay the enactment of meaningful legislation that would establish the needed federal framework to realize these safety and mobility solutions."

Current regulations essentially bar deployment of vehicles without human controls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last week granted its first-ever temporary exemption for a fleet of delivery vehicles from SoftBank Group Corp backed Nuro Inc.

Automakers oppose requiring airplane-style certification of new autonomous vehicle technologies before they are deployed on U.S. roads.

Daniel Hinkle, a counsel at a trial lawyers group, testified “those who are injured or harmed by automated driving must be able to hold the driver manufacturer accountable.”

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top Republican on the subcommittee, cast the issue in geopolitical terms, noting Chinese self-driving car developers in 2019 “logged the second-most miles of any country testing” in California.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, urged Congress to require tests for self-driving cars to ensure they can properly detect other vehicles and hazards and call for a mandatory manual override in all self-driving cars.

Chase said in the “absence of federal regulation it’s the duty of states and localities” to ensure that self-driving vehicles are safe.

Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Matthew Lewis