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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Federal legislation of autonomous vehicles remains stalled in Congress, but there’s a small chance it could be revived in a lame-duck session. If Democrats take the House on Tuesday, some industry lobbyists think the logjam could be broken by Senate Republicans, who may be more inclined to move ahead with a compromise bill than to start over with the new House.

Why it matters: Cars with increasing levels of autonomy are already being tested and deployed on American roads, and Waymo plans to launch the first fully automated robo-taxi service in Phoenix before the end of the year. How the technology develops in the coming decades may well depend on how politics plays out today.

Where it stands: More than a year ago, the House unanimously passed the SELF DRIVE Act, which would create a regulatory framework for highly automated vehicles.

  • A separate Senate bill — the AV START Act — was approved last November by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, but stalled out in the full Senate.

In the meantime, self-driving technology is racing ahead of regulations. Without federal standards, automakers and tech companies have to deal with a patchwork of state laws.

  • Executives like GM CEO Mary Barra are calling for federal legislation to provide a path for manufacturers to put self-driving vehicles on the roads safely, while allowing continued innovation.
“While we're arguing over whether the AV START Act is exactly right, the world is moving ahead by leaps and bounds in areas like technology, automation and artificial intelligence.”
— Shailen Bhatt, CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America

Yes, but: Senators on both sides of the aisle have legitimate concerns, not just about safety in light of recent accidents involving self-driving cars, but also about cybersecurity and the impact on jobs for truck drivers and others.

  • David Friedman, VP of advocacy at Consumer Reports and a former acting administrator of NHTSA, says Congress should increase NHTSA’s budget and direct them to put strong regulations in place to protect consumer privacy and ensure disabled populations have access to AVs.

Given how quickly technology is advancing and how slowly the government is moving, NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation have published a series of guidelines for automated driving systems.

  • The most recent applies a “market-driven, technology-neutral” approach to AV regulation that is intended to “encourage innovation in the transportation system.”
"The goal of the Department is to keep pace with these rapidly evolving technologies so America remains a global leader in safe automation technology."
— U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao

For now, the feds are encouraging AV companies to file voluntary safety assessment reports on a dozen key factors.

The bottom line: Until federal legislation is in place, these voluntary report cards — which seem more like glossy marketing exercises designed to build public trust — will have to guide government, industry and consumers.

Go deeper

7 mins ago - World

Biden to warn Putin U.S. will add troops in Eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine

Putin meets Biden in Geneva. Photo: Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty

President Biden will warn Russian President Vladimir Putin when they speak on Tuesday that if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. is prepared to increase its troop presence, capabilities and military exercises on NATO's "eastern flank," a senior administration official told reporters.

Why it matters: The administration believes it's increasingly likely that Putin will order an invasion.

40 mins ago - World

U.S. announces diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

An Olympic-themed sculpture in Beijing on Dec. 1. Photo: Hou Yu/China News Service via Getty Images

The U.S. announced Monday that it will not send officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in protest of human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Why it matters: The diplomatic boycott — which won't prevent American athletes from competing — marks a major escalation between the U.S. and China amid already heightened tensions over the CCP's treatment of Muslim minorities, military threats to Taiwan and economic tariffs.

Stuck jet stream brings blowtorch December in Lower 48, frigid Alaska

Short-term climate outlook for Dec. 13-19, 2021, from the Climate Prediction Center at NOAA. (NOAA/CPC)

The Lower 48 states have seen record-shattering warmth so far this December, with temperatures running as high as 35°F above average for this time of year. The warmth has been so pronounced that during the weekend, brush fires broke out in a snowless, unusually mild Denver metro area.

The big picture: The jet stream, which is a river of air that rides at about 30,000 feet along the temperature contrast between air masses, steering storms as it goes, has been stuck in a position well north of the continental U.S., keeping storms and cold weather at bay.