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Congress Struggles To Keep Up With Regulations For Self-Driving Cars


The tech industry and major automakers are rapidly pushing ahead on technology for driverless cars. Washington is in the slow lane. That's because Congress is trying to figure out what safety or other regulations should be put in place. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: When it comes to autonomous vehicles, lawmakers in Congress are definitely in drive. Democrat Debbie Dingell, whose Michigan district is home to a big chunk of the auto industry and thousands of auto workers, says it's an economic imperative.


DEBBIE DINGELL: Automated vehicles are going to be developed whether we like it or not. The question is whether the United States will remain in the driver's seat as opposed to China, Japan or even the EU, who are also making significant investments in this space.

NAYLOR: And for a Michigan Republican Fred Upton autonomous vehicles are an animated dream come true.


FRED UPTON: So we can forget about the Jetsons. The future of the automobile is here.

NAYLOR: Upton and Dingell spoke at a House hearing today that gave initial approval to a bill laying out some rules of the road for driverless cars. So far the Department of Transportation has placed only some voluntary guidelines on the industry while states have been more proactive. The House bill would pre-empt state regulations and give the Department of Transportation broader authority to waive safety standards for industry as it tests autonomous cars. That worries pro-safety groups. Jacqueline Gillan is president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

JACQUELINE GILLAN: We see autonomous vehicles as a game changer in terms of making some meaningful and lasting reductions in the highway death toll. But we also have millions of vehicles right now that are under recall because of safety defects.

NAYLOR: Gillan says manufacturers should have to meet minimum safety standards before driverless cars can be sold.

GILLAN: There may be a time where we won't need a steering wheel in your car, but you're sure going to need that airbag if you're in a crash.

NAYLOR: This may be a rare issue where bipartisan cooperation is possible. But as lawmakers consider how much to regulate the emerging industry, there could yet be some disagreement about just how much to pump the brakes. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.