By David Shepardson


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday unanimously gave the green light to a bill aimed at speeding the use of self-driving cars without human controls, barring states from imposing regulatory road blocks.


After unanimous approval by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the full Senate must take up the bill. The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a similar bill last month. General Motors Co, Alphabet Inc, Ford Motor Co and others have lobbied for the landmark legislation, while auto safety groups urged more safeguards.


Like the House bill, the Senate version does not include allowing exemptions to speed approval of self-driving technology for large commercial trucks. Despite complaints from some Republicans, the panel opted not to include them after labor unions raised safety and employment concerns.


The measure is the first significant federal legislation addressing self-driving cars. It would allow automakers to win exemptions from safety rules that require cars to have human controls. States could set rules on registration, licensing, liability, insurance and safety inspections, but not performance standards.

Senator John Thune, the Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, said the bill "underscores the bipartisan desire to move ahead with self-driving vehicle technology.... The safety and economic benefits of self-driving vehicles are too critical to delay."

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, sought to amend the bill to require human controls in the event of an emergency, but he dropped that proposal in the face of opposition. Some senators argued it would be more dangerous to allow human drivers to seek to take over driverless cars.

Several Republican senators noted the strong support of trucking organizations to include vehicles over 10,000 pounds, but Democrats resisted that part of the proposal. Tesla Inc, Alphabet, Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] and others have said they are working on self-driving trucks.

After lengthy negotiations, congressional aides Wednesday resolved a dispute that threatened to derail the bill over whether it would preempt state lawsuits over faulty self-driving vehicles. They added language to the bill aimed at preserving legal rights to sue over defective vehicles.

Within three years, the bill would allow automakers to each sell up to 80,000 self-driving vehicles annually if they could demonstrate they are as safe as current vehicles. Auto safety advocates complained it lacked sufficient safeguards.

The phase-in schedule was revised to initially allow 15,000 per manufacturer in the first year and up to 80,000 after three years, down from 50,000 to start and up to 100,000 in three years. It would eliminate the cap after four years.

The bill grants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) authority to exempt vehicles from federal safety requirements and the agency would have to make a determination within six months of getting a request.

The Self-Driving Coalition, a group of automakers, tech firms and advocates for the disabled, said the legislation "will help ensure that the United States leads the world in self-driving innovation."

Under the measure, NHTSA must write permanent rules on self-driving cars within a decade and regulators must study how to encourage U.S. production of self-driving equipment and also look at the impact of self-driving vehicles on infrastructure, traffic congestion and fuel consumption.

Companies would need to disclose what information self-driving cars are collecting about individuals and how it is used. Companies would need to disclose if consumers could opt out of data collection.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio)