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Self-driving cars are coming. D.C. lawmakers want to regulate them

New legislation would create a comprehensive framework for autonomous vehicles operating on city streets

An autonomous vehicle
Getty Images/Science Photo Libra

In 2013, the District became one of the first jurisdictions in the U.S. to pass a law governing the operations of self-driving cars—also known as autonomous vehicles—on public rights of way. Now, with the vehicles growing in popularity nationally and Ford testing them on D.C. roads, several local legislators want to make those regulations stricter through two new bills.

On Tuesday, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Council’s committee on transportation and the environment, pitched the “Autonomous Vehicles Testing Program Amendment Act of 2019,” along with Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and Chairman Phil Mendelson. The bill would set up a permitting process for autonomous vehicle testing within the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), which would have to review and approve such permit applications. Companies that seek to test self-driving cars in the city would have to provide an array of information to officials, including on each vehicle it plans to test, safety operators in the test vehicles, testing locations, insurance, and safety strategies.

“As autonomous technologies and programs develop, our laws have to keep pace with those changes,” Cheh said in opening remarks. “The bill would ensure that the District remains a leader in accommodating these new technologies while also ensuring that all of our roadway users including cyclists and pedestrians are safe and protected.” In addition, it would require testing companies to certify that their vehicles comply with federal safety policies; share with officials data on trips and any crash or cybersecurity incidents; and train operators on safety.

Under the legislation, DDOT would have the power to “suspend or revoke permits for good cause, including that a company made materially false statements in its application; that an accident has occurred that results in serious bodily injury or death; or that the autonomous driving system used by the company is the subject of an active National Traffic Safety Board investigation,” Cheh noted. She said the proposal represents “common sense reforms,” and three additional councilmembers (Jack Evans, Brandon Todd, Anita Bonds) co-sponsored it.

Mendelson, Cheh, and Allen also co-introduced a second, complementary bill on Tuesday: “The Autonomous Vehicle Amendment Act of 2019.” This bill would modernize the current registration, license, and liability requirements for autonomous vehicles in D.C. Mendelson said that during a recent Council roundtable on self-driving cars, “there were few details of how the District enters into an agreement with an entity to operate autonomous vehicles on District public roadways, or even the number of autonomous vehicles currently operating on [them].” (Curbed has emailed Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration for more information.)

Said Mendelson: “These two bills together would create a more comprehensive policy with regard to autonomous vehicles and their operation in the District of Columbia.” Both pieces of legislation now head to the Council’s transportation committee for consideration and a public hearing. One has not been scheduled yet, but could take place in the coming months.