The senior U.S. senator from the country’s most tech-savvy state has for months blocked a bill championed by some of California’s biggest tech companies that would cut regulations and get self-driving cars onto roads sooner — and she made it clear March 14 she’s not backing down.
The fight has pitted 25-year incumbent against one of the most powerful industries in her state at a time when she’s facing her most vigorous election challenge in years.
The bill, known as the AV START Act, would loosen federal regulations for the development of self-driving vehicles and speed up the process for getting them on the road. Companies would be allowed to test autonomous vehicles — and even market them to consumers — before new federal safety regulations on the technology are written. Meanwhile, states would be blocked from adopting tougher rules on self-driving cars.
Proponents say removing regulatory roadblocks and allowing wider testing on public roads is key to allow the autonomous vehicle industry to continue to grow. A similar bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously in September.
But Feinstein and a handful of other senior Democratic senators have argued that self-driving car technology isn’t ready for prime time. They’re holding the bill up in the Senate, blocking proponents’ efforts to approve it through unanimous consent. So far, Senate leaders haven’t been willing to spend the time needed for a debate on the Senate floor that would send it to a vote, which could take up to a week.
“Until new safety standards are put in place, the interim framework must provide the same level of safety as current standards,” Feinstein and four Democratic Senate colleagues wrote in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee on March 14, which was released to the Bay Area News Group. “Self-driving cars should be no more likely to crash than cars currently do, and should provide no less protection to occupants or pedestrians in the event of a crash.”
She and the other senators — including potential 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — asked for changes to the bill such as making any exemptions from current safety standards temporary and requiring a “firm timetable” for new regulations to be written. They also want the bill to require safety evaluations for partially automated vehicles.
Driverless cars have been allowed on California roads for testing since September 2014. Under new state regulations approved last month, a human backup driver must be in the car or able to remotely operate it.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)
Feinstein has previously voiced concerns about having autonomous cars driving alongside humans on Golden State highways. “You have to have a period of time where these cars are put on roads, but not necessarily heavily impacted California freeways that are going 65 to 75 miles an hour,” she told Recode in December. “I’m a driver, and I know I wouldn’t feel very comfortable.”
Meanwhile, tech companies like Waymo, Tesla, Intel and Lyft have pushed back, teaming up with some of the country’s biggest automakers to support the bill. Passing it would “protect against a patchwork of regulations that could stifle innovation, job growth, and the development of safety technologies that will reduce the number of lives lost on U.S. roadways,” more than 100 auto and tech groups and companies wrote in a letter to Senate leaders earlier this month, pointing out that most traffic deaths are caused by human error.
The bill is one of the top legislative priorities for the autonomous vehicle industry, said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead, who argued that worries over self-driving cars were “akin to the fears that the horse and buggy lobby spread when the first automobiles were introduced.”
Sen. John Thune, (R-South Dakota), and the bill’s sponsor, said he would fight to move it forward “even if it takes a debate on the Senate floor.”
“The safety and life-enhancing benefits of self-driving vehicle technology and legislation to help move it forward are too important to fail,” he said in a statement.
Consumer and public interest groups have backed Feinstein’s position in the debate, arguing that widespread testing of autonomous vehicles would put pedestrians and bicyclists at risk.
This isn’t the first time Feinstein has clashed with the tech industry. She accused Apple of endangering national security after the tech giant refused to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino mass shooters in 2016, and blasted lawyers of Google, Facebook and Twitter during hearings on Russian election influence last year.
“Feinstein is a bit old-school when it comes to tech,” said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Campbell-based Creative Strategies. “She’s been very supportive of the industry when it comes to the role they play in economic growth, but I’m not sure she clearly understands the amount of advances that are really taking place (in self-driving car tech).”
Feinstein’s main challenger in this year’s election, State Senate leader Kevin de León, said in a statement that he also opposes the AV START Act.
“This bill is just another D.C. power-grab and end-run around state regulations, further eroding states’ ability to govern their own roads and public safety,” he said. “This technology is moving forward and the bill is unnecessary, like so many things Congress seems to prioritize.”
Tech industry leaders have been divided in the Feinstein-De León race — Feinstein has received donations from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Tesla founder Elon Musk, while De León is being backed by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Y Combinator president Sam Altman and Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs, among others.
Observers say the tech industry’s influence in D.C. is growing, even as several of the biggest tech giants have faced controversy over how Russian agents used their platforms to influence the election. Google parent company Alphabet spent more on federal lobbying in 2017 than any other company, and other tech firms are also scaling up their lobbying activity and political contributions.
“Tech elites tend to look like Democrats on every issue, except they oppose regulation,” said Stanford political economy professor Neil Malhotra, who’s studied the political viewpoints of tech executives. “Those opinions are becoming more and more powerful.”