WASHINGTON – US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told a Senate panel on Tuesday that while autonomous vehicles are a priority for the department, legislative action from Congress is needed to expand their testing and deployment. .
“We’re doing what we can with the authorities and flexibilities that we have, but we don’t have a fully established legislative framework for that,” Buttigieg said during a hearing called by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Buttigieg pointed to the differences between the federal government and the states, saying the legislation could clarify for authorities.
“We tend to regulate or ensure the safety of the vehicle design, and state DMVs care about the driver,” he said. “That framework makes sense until you have a scenario where the vehicle is the driver. I don’t know how we can address some of those issues without the involvement of Congress.”
In response to a question from Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., about what the Department of Transportation is doing to support more widespread testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles, Buttigieg said he is using NHTSA’s legal authority to allow the deployment. of vehicles that would be exempt from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations.
NHTSA can authorize up to 2,500 vehicle exemptions per year for two years, or 5,000 per applicant. The agency granted its first exemption to startup AV Nuro during the Trump administration. General Motors and its Cruise autonomous driving unit also formally applied to NHTSA in February for a waiver, which is pending, to implement Cruise Origin.
“We have more waivers that have been requested and we are working quickly to address them because we want the type of research, development and testing to continue,” Buttigieg said.
Last week, 12 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Buttigieg urging the Department of Transportation to develop a comprehensive framework for autonomous vehicles.
“The federal government has an opportunity and a responsibility to foster a [AV] industry that is as safe as it is innovative, and that provides high-quality jobs throughout the economy, including transportation. … However, we lagged behind in shaping a regulatory framework that encourages this innovation,” the senators, led by Gary Peters of Michigan, who is also a member of the Commerce Committee, wrote.
In response to a question from Peters during the hearing, Buttigieg said the department needs to “work with Congress to have a legislative framework that adequately addresses these increasingly widespread types of vehicles.”
Previous attempts by Congress to pass bipartisan legislation governing autonomous vehicles have stalled, leaving developers and other stakeholders to navigate a patchwork of state and local laws.
So far, there is no federal law regulating autonomous vehicles.