Opinion | Robin Washington

Road is cleared for Trump to sign driverless-car bill

FILE-- A Ford Fusion modified by Uber for autonomous use on the streets of Pittsburgh on Sept. 8, 2016. Lawmakers in the House took a major step on Sept. 6, 2017, toward advancing the development of driverless cars, approving legislation that would put the vehicles onto public roads more quickly and curb states from slowing their spread. Under the bill, which was approved by a unanimous voice vote, carmakers can add hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars to America’s road in the next few years. (Jeff Swensen/The New York Times)
Jeff Swensen/New York Times
A Ford Fusion, modified by Uber for autonomous use on the streets of Pittsburgh in September 2016.

If President Trump wants to get behind a bold, bipartisan, good-for-America initiative (well, that’s what he says; who knows what he really wants?), he could sign the driverless car bill likely to land on his desk soon.

In a rare show of unity beyond issuing proclamations, a unanimous House on Wednesday passed a bill that would allow automakers to put up to 25,000 autonomous vehicles on the nation’s roads, rising to 100,000 in three years. The cars would be exempt from current safety standards, such as requirements that they have steering wheels or that a human being be in control. A companion bill making its way through the Senate also has bipartisan support.

Because there currently are no federal rules for driverless cars, the law would in effect create regulation — something anathema to Republican orthodoxy, and to Trumpian rhetoric in particular. Remember that executive order requiring two regulations be revoked for every new one created?


Yet in a political paradigm shift, this time business is asking for regulation, not fighting it. Top executives from Toyota, General Motors, Lyft, and Volvo made that clear in testimony before a House Commerce subcommittee in February. Before they start making cars equipped with minds of their own and assume liability for them, the companies want a clear set of federal guidelines stating exactly what’s allowed.

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They also don’t want 50 different state rules, which is what’s been happening. Since 2012, 21 states have passed legislation affecting autonomous vehicles (in Massachusetts, it’s by executive order) and 33 have introduced bills so far this year. A single law superseding the states would more than fulfill the add-one, take-away-two requirement, assuming the president’s understanding of civics is nimble enough to traverse federal-state regulations and separation of powers.

Not everyone is in favor of the House bill; there are consumer groups who say it lacks safety measures that some states have enacted. But safety is at the heart of the whole automation push, with lawmakers expressing alarm about 40,200 motor vehicle deaths in 2016, up from 35,092 in 2015 and 32,675 the year before. At least 90 percent are attributable to human error.

A world with fully autonomous cars would dramatically cut those deaths, even if it’s not completely clear how we’ll get there. But a unanimous act of Congress is a start, and something pretty easy for a president to sign — whether you call it a regulation or not.

Robin Washington writes about transportation. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com or via Twitter @robinbirk.