Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic

Progress on federal legislation to regulate self-driving cars has hit a speed bump during the COVID-19 pandemic as Congress shifts its focus to other issues.

For companies that continue to move forward with plans to build and test autonomous vehicles, the lack of federal action opens the door to complicated state-by-state regulations and raises the prospect that the United States will lose the international race to launch self-driving cars.

Demand increases: It’s a particularly inconvenient situation during a crisis that is sparking demand for human-free transportation and delivery, as autonomous vehicles are slowly starting to be used for activities such as food delivery and medical supply shipments.

“Congress is rightfully and must be focused on the human impact of COVID-19, and I think that must be on the top of their mind, but the second should be realizing the human benefits that autonomous vehicles can bring,” Greg Rogers, the director of Government Affairs and Mobility Innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), told The Hill on Wednesday.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, prospects were bright around the rollout of legislation on self-driving cars.

Bipartisan support: The House Energy and Commerce and the Senate Commerce Committees have been working since last year to draft and distribute bill texts to stakeholders for feedback. The bill, which is based on previous measures introduced during the last Congress, is extensive, covering everything from shoring up vehicle cybersecurity to regulating testing.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said at a hearing in December that his panel had “restarted its efforts” to regulate self-driving cars, and that more than 100 stakeholders had contacted the committee asking it to take action.

In February, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, told reporters that draft sections of a bill would be released “very soon.”

But the global spread of COVID-19 and the corresponding impact on Congress’s ability to conduct business have put the brakes on legislation.