The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation Wednesday that would allow automakers to build and sell hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars for use on U.S. public roads without holding those vehicles to current safety standards.

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The cars—which could be used for research into autonomous vehicle technology—might end up on public roads with other regular drivers.

The auto industry praised its passage, but Consumer Reports and other safety advocates question whether the bill goes too far and would put drivers at risk.

The SELF DRIVE Act also would prevent states from regulating self-driving cars and would create a federal system to ensure the new high-tech vehicles are safe. New national standards would prevent automakers and software manufacturers from having to deal with a patchwork of state rules across the nation.

To become law, the Senate must pass a version of this legislation; senators are expected to consider automated vehicle legislation and push for it to become law, and could introduce their own version of the bill soon. The Senate has scheduled a hearing on self-driving trucks for next week that will also touch on this legislation.

What the Bill Means for Automakers

The bill passed by the House offers some items sought by automakers and some protections for consumers. The legislation would: 

  • Allow the deployment of up to 25,000 self-driving vehicles per company in its first year, rising to 100,000 vehicles annually in the third year, exempt from essential federal safety standards.
  • Allow automakers to request exemptions from federal impact protection rules, including those that protect occupants in a crash.
  • Allow partial reporting of self-driving car crashes to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Restrict the ability of states and local governments to keep or set their own AV standards.
  • Not require automakers to notify consumers of system security breaches.

What the Bill Means for Consumers

  • Require the submission of company “safety assessment certifications,” to help ensure that NHTSA receives critical information from entities developing highly automated vehicles.
  • Require companies to develop cybersecurity plans to protect car occupants and their data.
  • Direct NHTSA to find the most effective ways to inform consumers about cars’ capabilities and limitations.
  • Reduce the risk of injury or death by children in hot cars by requiring new vehicles to come equipped with a rear seat occupant alert system.

Wade Newton, senior director of communications for the Auto Alliance, an industry lobbying group, says exempting the vehicles would speed development of beneficial new transportation technologies.

“Automakers have been developing these technologies for years, and this legislation helps address a variety of barriers that otherwise block the ability to safely test and deploy these vehicle technologies,” he says.

William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, says the legislation does not do enough to protect other drivers on the road.

“Right now, the SELF DRIVE Act isn’t ready to become the law of the land,” he says. “This bill includes some important new safeguards but doesn’t do enough to protect consumers or ensure that self-driving cars actually improve safety.

“As the Senate takes up its own bill, we urge members of Congress to work together, make critical improvements, and pass a law that would do more for consumers’ safety and security on the road.” 

A letter signed by a half-dozen advocacy groups and sent to House members questions the legislation’s goals.

“Unfortunately, this legislation takes an unnecessary and unacceptable hands-off approach to hands-free driving,” the letter says. It notes that a recent study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed deep public skepticism about autonomous vehicles (AVs). The group’s concerns include:

  • Allowing too many AVs on the road that may not meet safety standards, particularly if they’re exempted from crash test standards. “Any provision allowing for exemptions from crashworthiness standards, no matter the qualification or time line, is an egregious and unacceptable attack on safety,” the letter says. 
  • Whether NHTSA is getting enough funding, is allowed to set data-collection standards, and whether it should get expanded enforcement powers over the manufacturers of these cars.
  • Not stripping states and local governments of their AV oversight role. “While we support the statutory mission of NHTSA to regulate the design and performance of motor vehicles to ensure public safety, unless and until NHTSA issues comprehensive standards and regulations to govern AVs, states have every legal right, indeed a duty to their citizens, to fill the regulatory vacuum with state developed proposals and solutions for ensuring public safety,” the letter says.

The letter was signed by officials from the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Center for Auto Safety, the National Consumers League, the Truck Safety Coalition, the Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Trauma Foundation.