Opinion

On Autonomous Vehicles, Don’t Let Feds Grab Power From The States

The House Energy and Commerce Committee tomorrow is voting on a bill to help automakers introduce autonomous vehicles (AVs) into the nation’s fleet of cars and trucks.

While the bill has broad bipartisan support, at issue are provisions in the bill that would pre-empt state laws – ostensibly to keep states from drawing up their own set of safety standards.

The goal of the bill is to avoid fifty safety standards for autonomous vehicles in fifty states – a noble goal. Automakers can’t create fifty different versions of their cars to adhere to fifty state standards.

However, the bill could also theoretically up-end state laws that govern motor vehicle operation, which has a number of groups concerned. Consumer groups are worried about whether the law would end state lemon laws. Insurance companies are focused on state insurance regulations. Local car dealerships are concerned about state motor vehicle franchise laws.

Automobiles are one of the most regulated products in America today, with the federal government regulating some aspects, and state governments regulating other aspects. A rule of thumb is to think of “what’s in” the car as being a federal issue (safety standards, emission standards, etc.), while “who’s operating” the car as a state issue (drivers’ licenses, registrations, insurance and liability, sales and service).

The issue Congress is tacking is complex because, in theory at least, AV operation is not necessarily by a person and could thus be considered “what’s in” a car – and thus regulated federally, instead of by the state. At least unless you start issuing drivers licenses to robots!

Congress is right to consider pre-empting state or local laws that, in the future, might tinker with safety standards. We can’t have Maine, for example, requiring that all autonomous vehicles be 4x4s, or California requiring that all AVs run on hydrogen.

But at the same time, Congress needs to be careful not to upend our federalist system with an unnecessarily over-broad law – especially in areas where the states do a far better job regulating than the federal government ever could.

There is no reason why a bill designed to clear the way to get AVs up and running should in any way up-end state laws regarding licensing or registration, both of which are responsibly regulated at the state level. Nor should Congress pre-empt how states regulate the sale and service of cars and trucks through motor vehicle franchise laws, which are firmly in the purview of the states. As former Deputy Attorney General Peter Ferrara has noted, these laws exist because local dealerships are prohibited from collectively negotiating their franchise contracts with manufacturers. The governors and legislatures deal with these issues in every legislative session, know what they are doing, and any changes to these laws should come from the states – not impromptu action from Washington.

Bottom line, the purpose of the AV legislation going through congress this week are to make it possible for automakers to build great new technologically advanced autonomous vehicles. That’s the whole point, so Congress should take care to keep the legislation to just that and not upend states’ rights with an overly broad bill that unnecessarily cedes more power to Washington.

George Landrith is President and CEO of the Center for Automotive Freedom and Frontiers of Freedom – think tanks devoted to promoting free markets, individual liberty and constitutionally limited government.