Government Relations Report – December 12, 2019: Visits with Congress & Draft AV Legislation

L to R: David Lieberman, Dave Goch, Rep. Burgess, Amy Schoppman.

NMEDA was well-represented by all of its lobbyists–Amy Schoppman, NMEDA’s in-house GR Director, as well as Dave Goch and David Lieberman, attorneys at WC&B and NMEDA’s DC-based lobbyists–at a WC&B-hosted fundraiser for Congressman Michael C. Burgess (R-TX). The “clients only” event allowed Rep. Burgess–a senior member of two of the most powerful committees in the House of Representatives: Energy & Commerce (“E&C”) and Rules–to candidly discuss his policy perspectives as well as his decision to pursue the position of highest-ranking Republican on the entire E&C Committee (serving as Chairman or Ranking Member, depending on the outcome of the 2020 election). Rep. Burgess currently serves as the Ranking Member (and was previously Chairman) of E&C’s Health Subcommittee, and the full 55-Member committee has jurisdiction over the vast majority of any Autonomous Vehicle (AV) legislation that will be examined, debated, advanced, and/or voted on in the House. As a physician and a strong supporter of NMEDA’s mission, Rep. Burgess‘s securement of the Chairman or Ranking Member position could enhance NMEDA’s impact on AV legislation and other topics addressed by The House Committee on Energy & Commerce, including public health, marketplace, and commerce issues.

L to R: Amy Schoppman, Rep. Ruiz, Dave Goch.

Amy, Dave, and David also attended events for Dr. Raul Ruiz—who continues to assist with VMSA implementation efforts—and VoteVets, a veterans-focused Political Action Committee that has been helping NMEDA underscore the extent and urgency of VA’s Prompt Payment violations.

In legislative news, details of the House’s draft AV bill were recently leaked. Several sections are bracketed which typically means that the language is subject to change, but here is what is currently known:

  • The bill generally observes the levels of driving automation designed by SAE International. The Standard, J3016, defines six levels of driving automation ranging from SAE Level Zero (no automation) to SAE Level Five (full vehicle autonomy).
  • State and local governments would largely be stripped of any current ability to regulate the design, construction, and/or performance of AVs. The draft language reflects the idea that state and local governments could regulate the sale, distribution, repair, and service of AVs, however, they would not be permitted to issue their own vehicle safety standards. At this point it is unclear how certain state delegations—specifically the 29 states plus the District of Columbia that have enacted some form of AV-related legislation—will respond to this federal preemption provision, though it is anticipated that there will be objections.

On the Senate side, an AV hearing was held last month by the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee.  The witnesses—all government officials—were asked predictable questions about cybersecurity and infrastructure matters, but things got interesting when the discussion turned to the absence of federal testing and safety standards for AVs. Some Senators seemed troubled that DOT/NHTSA currently allow AV system developers to voluntarily self-assess their own technologies, and further expressed skepticism of the notion that any company should be trusted to prioritize public safety—or system accessibility, for that matter—over corporate interests and the general “rush to market.” There also appears to be growing congressional concern regarding the lack of any formal or mandatory methods for demonstrating “AV system safety.” The hearing wrapped up with Senators and witnesses alike agreeing that the current AV tech terminology is confusing, inconsistent, and misleading consumers about what functions AVs currently are—and aren’t—capable of. Overall, the government witnesses emphasized “regulatory flexibility” and cautioned that establishing AV standards too quickly might stymie innovation. For their part, the Senators struggled to balance concerns regarding the federal government’s failure to develop meaningful and enforceable AV development/deployment standards with the presumed potential of AVs to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. Accessibility was not discussed.

NMEDA’s GR Team is monitoring the language and progress of AV-related bills, and will continue its campaign to educate Congress, agency personnel, and stakeholders regarding the promises—and challenges—of wheelchair accessible autonomous vehicles.