The Empire Strikes Back, GM-Backed Legislation Attempts to Sink Silicon Valley

Legislate and lobby, it’s the American way!

Several states are considering adopting a General Motors-backed bill that would exclude technology companies from testing autonomous driving technology within their borders, if passed, the legislation would restrict the operation of self-driving fleets to traditional vehicle manufacturers.

It all started back in May when Michigan’s Republican state Sen. Mike Kowall and friends introduced a batch of bills allowing for the testing of autonomous vehicles missing steering wheels or brake pedals. Buried within the batch was the GM-backed Senate Bill 996, or the SAVe Act, which stipulates only companies that build vehicles could operate fleets without human operated overrides.

The bills became Michigan law in December, but only after Waymo and Uber suggested an alternative definition for “motor vehicle manufacturer” which now includes the makers of autonomous software. Now Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland and Illinois are considering their own SAVe bills, but containing the Michigan bill’s original language which banishes the tech companies.

The news has created a storm of sound and fury from sunny Silicon Valley, according to Automotive News companies like Waymo and Uber claim the proposed bill is restrictive and gifts legacy automakers a ridiculous competitive advantage.

“Just as Americans should have a choice in what car they buy, they should also have a choice to ride in safer, more advanced self-driving cars,” Waymo said in a statement. “This kind of anti-competitive bill will only slow down the rollout of live-saving technology and create an unlevel playing field at the expense of consumer safety.”

It’s not just the technology companies that are concerned, advocacy groups along with other automakers are starting to worry about the rapid spread of SAVe legislation. “It’s not a good idea to close the door on innovators who might come up with a solution and be a good and valuable partner,” said Brad Stertz, director of government affairs for Audi of America. “Competition is one of great things spurring this revolution since it started.”

The proposed legislation is leaving local lawmakers in a state of plain paradox, take Tennessee state Rep. William Lamberth for example. Lamberth represents a rural district filled with old and disabled people who struggle with mobility, which is why he’s “extremely interested in where [autonomous] technology is going with this,” but he’s also in support of Tennessee’s SAVe bill and wants to proceed carefully with self-driving cars.

For GM, the point isn’t to exclude major players like Waymo and Uber, but to ensure a safe roll-out of the technology and limit the abilities of pop-up-shop companies without the deep pockets to afford potential liability lawsuits. “The definition of who ought to be deploying this technology is whoever is willing and financially able to stand behind the product they’re putting out to the public,” said Harry Lightsey, an executive director of federal affairs for GM. “We’re open to how exactly to define that.”

GM is claiming altruism, the protector of states and citizens from the wrath of underfunded autonomy, but other are accusing the dinosaur from Detroit as behaving anti-competitive in an attempt to derail its major competitors. A potential solution for tech companies could be exploring partnerships with established automakers, but joint ventures force fed because of legal necessity carry the same shades of protectionism we see perpetuated in the People’s Republic.

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