On Wednesday, September 6, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the Energy & Commerce Committee’s SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388) – the first comprehensive autonomous vehicle legislation (AV) to reach the floor of either chamber of Congress. This bill, which passed out of committee with unanimous, bipartisan support in July, is designed to fast track the testing and deployment of self-driving, autonomous vehicles (AVs). Legislators believe that greater deployment of AVs will decrease the number of auto fatalities and will provide traditionally underserved demographics, including individuals with disabilities and seniors with access to better transportation options. If passed into law, the bill will bring AVs to the market faster by doing two things:

1) Create unifying, national standards for the testing and deployment of AVs; and
2) Foster innovation by increasing the number of self-driving cars being tested on public roads.

Here’s what you need to know:


The Act Will Create National Testing and Safety Standards

In order to reduce the current patchwork of inconsistent state-by-state rules, the Act will pre-empt any current or future state AV testing and safety regulations, reserving authority exclusively for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). More specifically, the Act tasks NHTSA with creating national testing and safety standards, and prohibits states from regulating AV mechanical, software, and safety systems. Under the Act, the NHTSA will establish safety assessment certifications for automakers who, in turn, will be required to submit regular safety assessment reports to the Administration, informing their process and allowing for appropriate regulatory tweaks to be made. Despite this pre-emption, however, states will still retain authority over rules regarding registration, licensing, liability, insurance, and safety inspections.

The Act Will Increase the Testing of AVs on Public Roads

The Act will permit automakers to obtain exemptions allowing them to deploy up to 25,000 AVs (a jump from the current 2,500 limit) without meeting existing auto safety standards in the first year. This cap will rise to 100,000 vehicles over a three-year period. These exemptions make it easier to test AVs by allowing automakers to bypass some current federal rules such as those that require that AVs maintain operable human controls like steering wheels and foot-activated brakes. Increasing the number of AVs on public roads is designed to fast track innovation because it allows automakers to do more testing in a shorter period of time. Automakers must still, however, demonstrate that self-driving vehicles winning these exemptions are at least as safe as normal vehicles.

The Act Will Support Greater Mobility for Traditionally Underserved Demographics

The Act will establish a Federal Advisory Council to ensure that manufacturers and regulators understand the transportation needs of traditionally underserved populations, namely, seniors and individuals with disabilities. The Act will further provide for educational outreach to make the use of the new self-driving technology accessible to seniors and individuals with disabilities.

The Act Requires Automakers to Implement Cybersecurity Protective Measures

Without prescribing any requirements in great detail, the Act mandates that automakers draft cybersecurity policies designed to detect and respond to unauthorized intrusions into each AV’s command software.

AV’s Carry Benefits and Risks

This bill is a strong step in the right direction to a more automated future. In addition to the increased convenience and safety benefits AVs bring, many unknowns still exist. The bill’s sponsors account for the unknowable by increasing the ease and volume of testing, and creating a feedback loop through safety assessments that NHTSA (and other federal agencies as necessary) can use to adjust regulations to better accommodate the facts on the ground. Two issues that stand out as needing more study are cybersecurity and environmental impacts.


The Act forces automakers to implement basic cybersecurity protection measures. But, can we really be sure these measures can protect millions of AVs from mass cyber attacks? Imagine a scenario where hostile organizations launch a cyber attack that gives them operational control over your vehicle. A freeway could be paralyzed into a parking lot with the click of a mouse. Even worse, vehicles could be weaponised against their occupants or an innocent crowd of bystanders. Regulators and automakers must work together to ensure that failsafe manual overrides are prominently featured in every AV such that any tech-novice could intuitively know how to safely regain control of a hacked vehicle.

Environmental Impacts

Increased AV penetration could have a positive or negative impact on air quality and overall auto-emissions based on how people use them. Department of Energy researchers say that driverless cars could reduce transportation energy consumption by 90% but may also increase emissions by as much as 200%. It is clear that greater access to self-driving vehicles will drastically change how people interact with their cars, but there is no clear consensus on what this might mean for our environment.


On the benefits side:
• AVs will decrease emissions through the use of onboard computer technology that will be able to choose the most fuel-efficient routes and select the optimal rate of acceleration and deceleration;
• AV engines will become smaller and less powerful, consuming less energy as the market emphasis on a car’s power and performance becomes less appealing;
• As vehicles become safer and accidents become a rarity, vehicles can shed much of their weighty safety equipment (anti-lock brakes, air bags) making vehicles lighter and more efficient;
• AVs will be able to speak to each other on the road, allowing them to drive more closely together. The closer that AVs are able to drive together, the less aerodynamic drag they experience, and the more efficient they become.

On the other hand:
• Hands-free driving may inspire a willingness to commute farther and drive more frequently, increasing the total number of miles driven over all;
• The weight of cars may see a net increase as consumers prioritize comfort and luxury in their traveling experience;
• AVs may create incentives that work to the detriment of the environment. For example, in urban areas where parking is expensive, it may be cheaper to simply send your AV driving around the block for a few hours while you conduct your business rather than cough up the money to pay a garage.

We need not passively observe the cybersecurity risks of AVs, or how AVs will affect the environment. As testing and deployment increases, regulators can monitor safety lapses and update cyberstandards accordingly. Similarly, regulators can adopt policies that incentivize AV users to operate their vehicles in an environmentally responsible fashion. Basic, common sense policies that penalize wasteful passenger-less AV usage and reward ride sharing could make all the difference.

Left to unfold on its own, increasing the number of AVs on the road will have uncertain effects across a wide range of issues. Thoughtful policies implemented now can help ensure that AVs do become a safe, efficient, step forward. This bill is the first step in the right direction.