Group Seeks to Pave Way for Nationwide Adoption of Driverless Cars – Wall Street Journal

Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Google self-driving car goes on a test drive in Mountain View, Calif.

A group of business and former military leaders wants to limit states’ ability to regulate driverless cars, calling for sweeping federal legislation to avoid a patchwork of rules they believe could hinder adoption of the technologically advanced vehicles.

Executives including FedEx Corp. Chief Executive Fred Smith and retired U.S. generals associated with a Washington group that lobbies to reduce America’s oil dependence plan to meet with politicians in the nation’s capital on Thursday to discuss recommendations for speeding introduction of driverless cars. Others expected to be present include John Krafcik, head of the self-driving car division at Google parent Alphabet Inc.

In addition to limiting states’ regulatory efforts, the group wants a U.S. legal liability fund created to ease concerns over lawsuits that could arise in skirmishes over whether drivers or computers are at fault in crashes.

The proposals aren’t likely to gain immediate traction on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers are at loggerheads with the Obama administration on a variety of fronts during a presidential election year. Instead, they are likely to add to ongoing discussions picking up steam in Washington, Silicon Valley, Detroit and elsewhere over how to best to regulate driverless-car technology speeding to market.

The Obama administration earlier this year proposed spending nearly $4 billion over a decade to accelerate acceptance of driverless cars on U.S. roads and curb traffic fatalities and travel delays. U.S. regulators are expected this summer to release guidelines for preferred rules for driverless cars, in part to coax local governments to avoid pursuing different policies that could subject autonomous vehicles to different decrees when they cross state lines.

Some clashes already have emerged. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this year determined, in response to a Google query, that a computer piloting an automated vehicle could be considered a “driver” for regulatory purposes. The agency also flagged some potential conflicts with current government rules and driverless vehicles, and has indicated a willingness to make exceptions for automated cars with demonstrated safety benefits.

California, meanwhile, has proposed requiring a special license and training for motorists in automated vehicles. That would essentially prohibit the kinds of autonomous vehicles Google envisions, as well as driverless taxi efforts under way at ride-hailing companies Lyft Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc.

FedEx’s Mr. Smith, an advocate for alternative fuels in the shipping company’s vehicles, expressed concerns over regulatory patchworks.

“We’re on the cusp of the largest ground transportation transformation since the invention of the Model T, and we must ensure that unnecessary and outdated regulations don’t encumber the potential,” he said.

The group spearheading the driverless car proposals being unveiled in Washington on Thursday, Securing America’s Future Energy, believes electric cars will make up a large swath of driverless vehicles, helping reduce oil consumption. Proponents of autonomous vehicles also expect them to drive more efficiently than human motorists.

“We really believe this is a way to accelerate the end of our oil dependence,” said Robbie Diamond, president of Securing America’s Future Energy.

Other recommendations from the group include allowing auto makers to sell an unlimited number of electric cars that come with a $7,500 tax credit, so long as the vehicle’s price doesn’t eclipse $55,000. The tax credit would be reduced starting in 2021 and no longer be offered by 2023. Currently, the same tax credit disappears once a company sells 200,000 electric vehicles.

Such a proposal would exclude Tesla Motors Inc.’s Model S car and Model X sport-utility vehicle, both of which run at more than $75,000. But Tesla’s latest car, the Model 3, could benefit, as it is expected to be sold for $35,000 before any tax credits.

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