By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A coalition of auto safety advocates criticized a bill before the U.S. Congress that would allow automakers eventually to sell up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles annually if they could demonstrate they are as safe as current vehicles.
The measure, the first significant federal legislation aimed at speeding self-driving cars to market, would allow automakers to win exemptions from safety standards for self-driving cars without human controls and bar states from imposing performance requirements.
Last week, U.S. Senator John Thune, a Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, and Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said they had reached a bipartisan deal on the legislation.
The Senate Commerce Committee will vote on the measure on Wednesday, but may also vote on whether to include larger trucks. The U.S. House unanimously passed a similar bill in early September that did not include vehicles above 10,000 pounds (4.5 tonnes).
Current law prohibits vehicles without human controls.
"The public will be the crash-test dummy for this dangerous experiment," former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Joan Claybrook told a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, arguing the auto industry "is essentially trying to deregulate auto safety."
Jason Levine, who heads the Center for Auto Safety, said on the call there was an "absence of corporate caution in the rush to be first to get self-driving cars on the road."
General Motors Co, Alphabet Inc, Ford Motor Co and others have lobbied for the legislation to speed deployment of self-driving cars without human controls.
States could still set rules on registration, licensing, liability, insurance and safety inspections, but not performance standards.
The bill grants the NHTSA authority to exempt vehicles from existing federal safety requirements and the agency would have to make a determination within six months of getting a request.
It is not clear how the agency would make that assessment, given limited current testing on U.S. roads. The fatality rate in 2015 was 1.12 deaths and 78 injuries per 100 million miles traveled.
The bill is backed by groups including the Association of People with Disabilities, that say self-driving vehicles "have the potential to transform how Americans, with and without disabilities, move about their communities."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group, said on Tuesday that NHTSA's authority was not affected by the bill. "Given that human error contributes to nine out of 10 crashes, advancing self-driving technologies right now is critical to enhancing future roadway safety," spokesman Wade Newton said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)