U.S. Congress plans self-driving car legislation to speed rollout

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress is working on national self-driving vehicle legislation that could replace state-by state rules and make it easier for automakers to test and deploy the technology, senior U.S. House and Senate lawmakers told Reuters on Tuesday.

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The chairman of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee said he planned to unveil a package of legislation to overhaul federal rules governing self-driving vehicles.

“We’re getting very close. I think it’s a good package. We’ve put a lot of work into it,” Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said in an interview, adding that there was “good bipartisan agreeement” and he hoped to unveil and take up the package in the next month or two.

Senator John Thune, a Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, is also working on a legislative self-driving proposal with Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat. “We’re not there yet but we are getting closer,” Thune said.

Thune and Walden spoke to Reuters on Tuesday after getting a ride in a self-driving Audi, a unit of Volkswagen AG VOWG_p.DE.

Companies such as Alphabet Inc and Ford Motor Co are aggressively pursuing automated technologies and want unified federal regulations to replace outdated rules and make it simpler to develop and eventually sell the technology across the country.

This spring, Republican staff drafted a summary of 16 potential legislative proposals on federal reforms and regulations that they circulated to automakers and which was seen by Reuters.

Among proposals under consideration is one to allow the U.S. Transportation Department to exempt up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles from current safety standards, which were written on the assumption responsibility for a car’s operation rested with the human driver.

The existing motor vehicle safety standards bar the sale of vehicles without steering wheels and gas pedals, for example. Alphabet Inc’s Waymo unit has called for those rules be changed.

Another proposal would prohibit a state from restricting testing by a manufacturer of up to 250 vehicles and comes as automakers have sparred with California over revisions to its self-driving car testing rules.

Thune said he planned to hold a hearing on June 14 about self-driving car issues but did not put a specific timetable on introducing legislation. He said he wanted to avoid a “patchwork” of regulations from 50 different states on self-driving cars and look at cybersecurity and other issues.

“The key thing is to make sure we stay in the lead on the innovation that there aren’t unnecessary roadblocks in the way, balancing that with safety,” Walden said.

On Monday, the U.S. Transportation Department said it would unveil revised self-driving guidelines within the next few months, responding to automakers’ calls for regulations to sanction costly efforts to put autonomous vehicles on the road.

The voluntary guidelines would provide direction to states on self-driving cars as Congress works to set more permanent rules to oversee autonomous vehicles. But legislation might not be approved this year and states and automakers are eager for guidance from regulators in the interim.

Vehicle crashes annually kill more than 35,000 people on U.S. roads and injure 2.4 million.

Walden said the goal was to get self-driving cars on the roads in big numbers so in a generation people would say: “‘What a bunch of barbarians - they drove themselves? Are you kidding me? And look at how many died every year and they thought that was acceptable?’”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Andrew Hay