As the push for self-driving cars nears fruition, Congress has a bit of work to do.

A national solution is the key, not a hodge-podge of state regulations with states saying and doing a number of different things.

A House bill dubbed the Highly Automated Vehicle Testing and Deployment Act of 2017, is now in the works. It will give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration broad oversight of the self-driving car industry.

The New York Times reports As Self-Driving Cars Near, Washington Plays Catch-Up

On Wednesday, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee voted to advance a bill that would speed up the development of self-driving cars and establish a federal framework for their regulation. The bill, known as the Highly Automated Vehicle Testing and Deployment Act of 2017, is the first major federal effort to regulate autonomous vehicles, and would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration broad oversight of the self-driving car industry. A full committee vote on the measure is expected next week, and the bill could go before the entire House this fall.

The Senate is also playing catch-up. Last month, a bipartisan group of senators announced that it was working toward its own version of an autonomous vehicle bill, which would prioritize “safety, fixing outdated rules, and clarifying the role of federal and state governments” in regulating self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars have been praised by members of both parties, who see the technology as a way to spur job creation while preventing many of the roughly 40,000 motor vehicle deaths that occur on American roads each year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 percent of traffic deaths involve human error, including distracted driving and driving while intoxicated.

Self-driving cars would obviate those problems, even if they would introduce new fears. (One well-publicized accident, a fatal 2016 crash involving a Tesla that was set to “autopilot” mode by its owner, sparked worries among regulators, who later concluded that Tesla’s driver-assistance system was not to blame for the accident.)

“These vehicles are going to be developed, and I want to make sure we’re developing them in this country, not China, India or the European Union,” said Ms. Dingell, a former auto lobbyist and General Motors executive whose district includes the headquarters of Ford Motor Company. “The challenge for this country, period, is how we stay at the forefront of innovation and technology.”

In the absence of federal guidance, many states have started developing their own laws for self-driving cars. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles recently released a series of proposed rules, and the state is beginning to modify its roads to make them easier for the sensors in autonomous vehicles to analyze. Michigan passed a package of bills last year that made it easier for auto manufacturers to experiment with self-driving cars on public roads. And Florida passed a law that legalized truly self-driving cars, with no human operator behind the wheel.

Right now, the benefits of self-driving cars are clear and concrete — fewer traffic deaths, easier commutes, the ability to safely use your phone while you drive — while the costs remain largely theoretical. But experts have warned that the self-driving car revolution could usher in sweeping economic changes, including the displacement of millions of workers. Roughly 1.7 million Americans drive long-haul trucks for a living, and another 1.7 million people drive taxis, buses and other commercial vehicles. When autonomous vehicles render many of those jobs obsolete, politicians will have a much bigger set of problems to contend with.

Florida Takes the Lead

On April 4, 2016, in a unanimous 118-0 vote, Florida passed the nation’s first legislation to legalize fully autonomous vehicles on public roads without a driver behind the wheel.

With no snow to contend with and an aging population that undoubtedly has night vision problems, Florida is a logical place to try, but other states will follow.

Quartz says Florida became the most important US state in the race to legalize self-driving cars.

“For the moment, Florida is the most important state as far as the legal aspects of autonomous vehicles go,” said John Terwilleger, a Florida business litigation attorney who has studied the state’s AV statutes. “Frequently, the first state to pass legislation becomes the model for the remainder of the country, so it is very possible that Florida’s law will become a model.”

For the AV industry, however, clear regulation would be a relief. But the flurry of competing legislation—ranging from Florida’s laissez-faire approach to California’s strict oversight—is causing worries. “Ideally, we’d like to see strong leadership from the federal government, not just to industry but to the states,” says Chan Lieu, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) official and advisor to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents Uber, Lyft, Ford, Google, and Volvo. “We want there to be consistency across all 50 states, so autonomous vehicles don’t run afoul of laws crossing state boundaries.”

Consider the most basic issues: What exactly is an autonomous vehicle? Who is responsible when it crashes? Are they legal? Quartz asked lawyers around the country those questions. The only consistent answer was, “Nobody knows yet.” What’s certain is that self-driving car experiments are being run on roads where companies have pushed ahead of explicit regulation, or in places like Florida where regulators are welcoming them.

National Regulation at Hand

National regulation is at hand. A bipartisan effort guarantees passage. I expect Trump will sign a bill later this year. States will adhere to national rules. Even California will be forced to go along.

The lead article by the New York Times has the standard disclaimer: “Some experts predict it could be a decade or longer until cars are capable of full autonomy in every driving condition, but several major auto manufacturers, including Ford and Toyota, say they’re on track to release cars capable of limited autonomy within the next four years.”

Depending on your view, that statement is either sappy nonsense or it does not go far enough. The word “every” is the culprit. What if it rains asteroids?

Yes, there are likely some conditions in some remote places that will require a driver for some time, but that is perhaps one tenth of one percent of driving.

Rain, snow, cats, dogs, grandmothers on roller skates, balloons blowing across the street, and all the other nonsense thrown my way by deniers will soon give way to reality: Truly driverless vehicles will be on the roads by 2021-2022.

Major Disruption

Millions of jobs will vanish in the next five to seven years.

Some challenge that statement because there are “only” 1.7 million long-haul truck jobs and another 1.7 million taxi jobs.

Job Aspects

  • Long haul truck drivers will be the first to go. Taxis will follow.
  • The auto insurance business will face major disruption. There will be fewer accidents and even fewer claims adjusters especially if we see national no-fault regulations.
  • What about all the servers at truck stop restaurants along the highways?
  • With a simultaneous push towards electric and steadier driving, there will be a reduced need for mechanics.
  • Car ownership itself comes into question. In cities, there will be a huge move towards non-ownership. That means fewer cars on the roads, and fewer cars produced.
  • Diesel will give way to electric. The need to produce, refine, and deliver diesel will diminish then stop at some point.
  • There will be new jobs too. Truck monitoring comes to mind.
  • Instead of a driver, school buses will have a nanny. Other nanny-type jobs will surface as parents will not want kids in vehicles by themselves.
  • If cities or highways put in transmitters of some sort along the roads, there will be work, at least for a while, performing those tasks.

This is the biggest technological disruption since the internet. It will impact vehicle ownership, insurance, maintenance, mechanics, and even short order cooks.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock