As Congress considers the first federal legislation to speed development of self-driving cars, the proposed standards would be a wholesale shift in how the government guarantees safety on the roads.

The proposed legislation—approved unanimously Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee—would allow automakers to produce and sell up to 100,000 self-driving cars per year that are exempted from federal safety standards.

These cars could end up on public roads with other regular drivers.

The legislation would block states from regulating self-driving cars and create a new federal system for ensuring that these new high-tech vehicles are safe.

Self-Driving Cars

Consumer groups, including Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, worry about the safety exemptions and how that might affect drivers on the road.

“Self-driving cars have the potential to make our roads far safer, but dramatically expanding exemptions could put these cars on a collision course with safety,” says William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union. “Every car—regardless of whether it’s driven by a human or software—must protect consumers in a crash.”

A bipartisan group of senators is also due to release its version of self-driving-car legislation soon. Both bills could be up for floor votes as soon as September.

Automakers say the current set of regulations that apply to all U.S. cars, known as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, has slowed testing and data collection needed to develop self-driving cars. For example, car and tech companies frequently cite requirements for steering wheels and brake pedals as irrelevant.

As highway fatalities increase, automakers say self-driving cars, which can’t get drunk or be distracted, could save lives. Lawmakers from both parties agree with this general premise, and that’s why legislation is moving so quickly.

“Today, we’re taking an important step towards making our roadways safer and reducing the rising number of traffic-related fatalities,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., said in a statement Thursday after his panel approved the measure on a bipartisan, 54-0 vote. “We can set the stage for the continued development of self-driving cars and ensure that America stays the innovation leader it is.”

Under the House bill, automakers could exempt some new autonomous cars from safety standards, possibly even basic crash-protection features, if the manufacturers can demonstrate that the vehicles will be as safe as regular cars. The exemptions would last for four years instead of the current two.

At the urging of safety groups, including Consumers Union, the House bill now requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make public the process it will use to consider automakers’ exemption requests.

It’s not yet clear which criteria NHTSA would use to evaluate safety.

Drivers of conventional cars could be at risk: If self-driving cars don’t hold up in a crash as well as advertised, or as well as conventional cars, that presents a new danger.

Under the House legislation, there could be a large expansion in cars exempted from regulations by NHTSA, including some that could be used by consumers, not just test drivers.

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, sees the rush to legislate as a result of the economic pressure that’s building from car companies jockeying to be first to deploy this new technology. The public is being asked to accept a form of beta testing on highways, Gillan says, and NHTSA will be tasked to be a tough cop on the beat without the resources to do the job.

“You may not need that steering wheel, but you are going to want the airbag that’s in the steering wheel if you’re in a crash,” Gillan says. “You have the responsibility to protect the people that are buying these vehicles. “

Within the auto industry, there was a sense of celebration with movement of the bill. Without a new federal law, automakers and lawmakers see a messy collection of potentially conflicting state laws.

“We believe self-driving vehicle technology holds great promise to improve safety and transform mobility in the United States,” says Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “This legislation helps to address a variety of barriers that otherwise block the ability to safely test and deploy these vehicle technologies.”