8:50 p.m. EST March 11, 2016
Washington — The federal government is trying to get a handle on the development of autonomous cars as automakers come closer to creating a truly self-driving vehicle.
U.S. lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee plan a hearing Tuesday in Washington at which they will discuss the role of government in promoting innovation in the industry. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is planning meetings next month in Washington and California on potential regulations for autonomous vehicles.
Advocates for the technology say it is critical for Congress and federal regulators to begin thinking about potential rules for the road while the technology is still in its early stages.
“The potential for this technology is really quite expansive, which is why it’s so important for Congress to get ahead of it,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) said in an interview with the Detroit News on Friday.
Peters, who has been vocal about the potential benefits of self-driving cars, said the advent of fully autonomous vehicles is “not very far off.”
“I think it’s closer than people realize,” he said.
Peters said he is working to ensure Detroit and Michigan play as big of a role in the development of self-driving cars as they did in the creation of the automobile.
“They have the technology and you need all of that,” he said of companies like Google that are operating out of Silicon Valley. But Peters said Michigan has “most of the industry is already here and they’re working on this.”
Peters said he is hoping “you’ll see people working together” in Michigan and Silicon Valley. On Friday, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. both announced Silicon Valley-area ventures as they try to remain leaders in the fast-changing industry.
Test tracks for autonomous vehicles have already been developed in places like Nevada and California, in addition to the MCity facility that opened last year at University of Michigan. Peters said Michigan has more appropriate conditions for testing the ability of self-driving cars to operate in inclement weather than its Western competitors.
“One thing we do have is snow and ice, which is important because you need to test things in all conditions,” he said.
The debate over which part of the country is going to be home to the next generation of auto development is occurring against a backdrop of turf battles in Washington and among state governments about who should set the rules of the road.
Transportation officials in the Obama administration have said the federal government has typically shaped the direction of the nation’s automotive policy, and they plan to do so again.
“We are witnessing a revolution in auto technology that has the potential to save thousands of lives,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement announcing the upcoming NHTSA meetings. “In order to achieve that potential, we need to establish guidelines for manufacturers that clearly outline how we expect automated vehicles to function — not only safely, but more safely — on our roads.”
NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said in a conference call with reporters in Washington on Friday, “Traditionally NHTSA’s role and the federal role has been to regulate vehicles and vehicle manufacturers — and states have been responsible for drivers and their behavior. We’re now approaching an era where those two that were once very distinct areas of regulations are beginning to come together.”
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have pushed for restraint in enacting new regulations. The GOP-led Senate Commerce Committee says its Tuesday hearing is designed to “explore advancements in autonomous vehicle technology and its anticipated benefits for Americans” — not craft new regulations they say could stifle development.
“Witnesses have been asked to testify on their continued efforts to develop automated vehicles, their views on the appropriate role of government in promoting innovation including removing unnecessary hurdles, and their strategy to grow consumer adoption of this new technology,” the panel said.
Recent polling has shown that drivers are apprehensive about the idea of riding in cars that drive themselves. A study by the AAA auto club showed three out of four U.S. drivers are afraid to ride in a self-driving car.
Peters admitted Friday it will “take time” for drivers to feel comfortable being passengers in their own cars. But he expressed confidence that drivers will eventually embrace the idea.
“It’s a pretty radical idea to call up an Uber on your phone, and it shows up to take you where you want to go and there’s not a driver — but that’s where the technology is going,” he said.
He said self-driving autos “have the potential to develop cars that are safer than we’ve ever seen.”