Automakers, U.S. lawmakers hope for progress on self-driving car bill

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DETROIT (Reuters) – Automakers and lawmakers expressed hope on Tuesday that U.S. Congress would soon pass a stalled bill aimed at speeding self-driving cars to market, even as safety advocates argued for more performance requirements.

The U.S. House of Representatives in September unanimously approved a bill to quickly allow self-driving cars without human controls on roads. A Senate committee approved similar legislation in October, but did not act before the end of 2017 after some Democrats raised concerns.

At the Detroit auto show, which featured companies that are aggressively pursuing self-driving technologies, members of Congress and automakers acknowledged it could take several months or longer for the bill to be approved by the U.S. Senate and signed into law, but said it had strong support.

“There isn’t much legislative time this year,” said Representative Greg Walden, a Republican who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, in an interview on the sidelines of the auto show. “It just needs to get done.”

General Motors Co, Waymo owner Alphabet Inc, Toyota Motor Co and others have lobbied for the landmark legislation.

The Senate bill would allow automakers to each sell up to 80,000 self-driving vehicles annually within three years if they demonstrate they are as safe as current vehicles. Auto safety advocates complain the bill lacks sufficient safeguards.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association representing, GM, Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE), Toyota and others, urged speedy action.

“Delays in passing legislation are really delays in lives saved and in access to mobility for the disabled,” the group said on Tuesday.

GM said last week it would seek government approval under current law to deploy up to 2,500 vehicles without steering wheels and brake pedals.

Walden and Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said it is important that the United States maintain a lead on self-driving technology, reduce the more than 37,000 annual traffic deaths and avoid conflicting state rules.

The bill grants U.S. regulators authority to exempt vehicles from federal safety requirements and requires a determination within six months of an automaker request.

Some Democrats have concerns, noting the measure would bar states from being able to test self-driving vehicles as they do prospective human drivers.

“The car is not going to have to take a test,” said former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief Joan Claybrook said at a Detroit forum, arguing that the bill should require binding performance requirements for cybersecurity and vehicle electronics.

She said in an interview that the proposed exemption policy is “ridiculous” and the law should bar automakers from seeking exemptions from crash worthiness standards.

Peters said states could still regulate self-driving cars, including by determining where they could be used and limiting their allowed travel speed.

“(Automakers) have to check a lot of boxes to make sure these cars are safe,” he said.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli