House Gives Green Light To Self-Driving Cars

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that loosens the reins over companies’ ability to test self-driving car technology.

Known as the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act, or SELF DRIVE Act, the legislation will expand the private industry’s capacity to delve into the rapidly growing enterprise. Businesses can now apply for exemptions from federal- or state-imposed regulations that mandate certain safety and design protocols.

The exemptions are limited, though. The pending law specifies that a manufacturer is not allowed to offer more than 25,0000 such vehicles in the first 12-month period, 50,000 in the next 12-month period, with 100,000 maximum thereafter.

The bill also gives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the power to adapt federal standards as the budding technology grows.

“Self-driving cars hold the promise of making America’s roads safer, creating new economic opportunities, and helping seniors and those with disabilities live more independently. The SELF DRIVE Act strikes the critical balance of enhancing consumer safety while promoting the continued development of this cutting-edge technology,” Republicans Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon and Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta of Ohio said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill paves the way for advanced collision avoidance systems and self-driving cars nationwide, and ensures that America stays a global leader in innovation.” (RELATED: Distracted Driving Is A Huge Problem, And Autonomous Car Could Help)

Dozens of companies, both within the U.S. and around the world, are racing to become the first to have a fully operable driverless vehicle on the market. In fact, a large portion of the firms aren’t even car or car part manufacturers.

Microsoft and Google have been delving into autonomous vehicle technology for some time. Uber and Lyft, the two main ride-sharing competitors in the U.S., are as well. Apple, however, which was quite hush on its potential strategy, appears to be ditching its ostensible plan for creating a fully functional self-driving vehicle, but is still exploring the technology that helps the vehicles operate, just like several others. (RELATED: Google, Apple Are Teaming Up With Rental Car Companies Like Avis, Hertz For The Future Of Driving)

Since the technology is nascent, regulators and lawmakers didn’t seem quite certain how to approach it. Even though the bill is not very comprehensive and doesn’t address the nuances of the prospective technology, its passage now gives at least a certain degree of clarity to a cloudy area of relatively irresolute policy.

“The House vote marks an important first step in creating the framework for the safe introduction of highly autonomous vehicles into our nation’s transportation system,” said David St. Amant, interim president and CEO of Intelligent Transportation Society (ITS) of America. “ITS America is confident that highly automated vehicles will help solve many of our nation’s most critical transportation challenges while saving thousands of lives annually, improving mobility, providing greater accessibility, increasing sustainability, and strengthening our economy.”

Some critics worry that autonomous vehicles, specifically trucks, will trigger a huge surge in job losses, since truck driving is a highly popular occupation in America. Others, like tech guru and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, say the opposite will be true and that technology replacing jobs is a “recurring panic” and a oft-professed “Luddite fallacy.” He cited how many people around a century ago protested the emergence of cars because they were pushing the horse and carriage industry into obsolescence. But the manufacturing of vehicles not only created more jobs directly, according to Andreessen, but also spurred innovation in other areas, such as paved road construction. This led to the idea and further development of suburbs and consumer establishments like hotels, restaurants and movie theaters. (RELATED: Ford, Domino’s Testing Pizza Delivery With No Drivers)

Regardless if Andreessen’s predictions come true, many people are very excited about the advent of autonomous vehicles. The average person is willing to spend $4,900 more for a car that has driverless technologies, according to a fairly recent study conducted by Cornell University researchers. Some potential consumers even said they would be prepared to pay more than $10,000 for the automatic functions.

Now that the House has finally passed a bill on the technology, people may soon be able to reap any potential benefits.

The Senate is expected to introduce a companion bill sometime soon, but the outlook for that chamber of congress is not yet clear.

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