US Senate reaches deal on self-driving cars

It reportedly won't include trucks.

Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

Democrats and Republicans can't get on the same page about most things, but robots driving cars is apparently a-okay no matter your political affiliation. After the House approved a bipartisan pact, both sides in the Senate agreed to a deal making it easier for Ford, GM and other automakers to get self-driving cars on public roads. "We expect adoption of self-driving vehicle technologies will save lives, improve mobility for people with disabilities, and create new jobs," Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Gary Peters (D-MI) said in a statement.

Industry has been seeking US approval of autonomous cars without steering wheels and pedals, provided regulators find them to be safe (as it stands now, self-driving vehicles must have human controls). It also wants the law to prevent individual states from blocking the use of self-driving cars. According to Reuters sources, the bill won't include commercial trucks.

The House measure allows car companies to sell up to 25,000 self-driving cars with no controls in the first, year and up to 100,000 by year three, as long as the vehicles are found as safe as current models with human controls. After it passed the bill, it seemed like the Senate's stamp, and therefore passage of the law, was a fait accompli. However, things were a bit thornier, as the Senate has reportedly been negotiating over the inclusion of trucks and issues with self-driving lawsuits currently in progress.

We expect adoption of self-driving vehicle technologies will save lives, improve mobility for people with disabilities, and create new jobs.

Automakers like Ford and GM, along with Waymo, Uber and other tech firms, have also lobbied for legislation that's consistent from state to state. They've complained, for instance, that too-strict California rules are are impeding self-driving progress. With the law, states could reportedly control registration, licensing, liability and insurance but not interfere with technological standards.

We'll know exactly what's in the law later today, but as of now, no tech or auto companies are even close to being able to put driverless cars with no human controls on public roads. When it does happen, the US Department of Transport (DoT) and most experts agree that they'll reduce road deaths considerably. After all, the AI and sensors never have lapses in concentration and aren't, obviously, affected by drugs or alcohol.

As it stands, only one car company -- Audi, with the A8 -- has released a commercial vehicle with level 3 self-driving capability (stay tuned to see how that works). That allows you to look away from the road and do other things during certain phases of driving, but you still must be ready to take the wheel at any time. For a car without driver controls to be feasible, you need level five autonomy -- and by all accounts, we're still far from that.