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This May 13, 2014, file photo shows a row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. The House voted Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, to speed the introduction of self-driving cars. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

The line between sci-fi and reality blurred yesterday as the U.S. House of Representatives took a major step toward driverless roadways.  

On Wednesday, the House unanimously approved a sweeping bill that seeks to speed the real-world deployment of self-driving cars, and gives the federal government control over said vehicles.

The next stop for the bill—called Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act, or SELF DRIVE Act—is the Senate, where a similar bill has already been debated. Both bills have bipartisan support.

“Today marks an important milestone in the pursuit to make our roadways safe and support American leadership in self-driving innovation,” said Greg Walden (R-OR).

“The SELF DRIVE Act is going to improve our economy and save lives on the road,” said Debbie Dingell (D-MI).

Indeed, safety is a growing priority as today’s roads become more and more congested. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, road deaths rose nearly 8 percent in 2015, the largest annual jump in 50 years. A 2014 report from the administration says traffic crashes account for $836 billion in economic loss, with human error responsible for 94 percent of crashes.

The SELF DRIVE Act gives the federal government control over the design, construction and performance of highly automated vehicles. Meanwhile, the states will handle matters like inspections, insurance and liability.

Some automakers have protested in the recent past that states’ proposed rules on self-driving cars are too prohibitive—especially California. The SELF DRIVE Act nullifies that problem, giving the federal government the ability to establish a national framework. Essentially, the federal government will regulate the cars, and the states will regulate the drivers.

The bill requires automakers to submit safety assessment certifications, including relevant test results and data that prove the vehicle will maintain safety and function as intended—with fail safe features. Exemptions in the bill allow automakers to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles in the first year if they meet existing automotive safety standards. After the first year, the cap rises to 100,000 vehicles annually.

The bill doesn't apply to commercial vehicles, which were carved out after labor unions expressed concern that self-driving trucks would eliminate jobs.

In terms of safety, the SELF DRIVE Act addresses additional concerns.

The bill mandates that all manufacturers of self-driving cars develop a cybersecurity plan that includes a process for detecting and responding to cyberattacks, mitigating vulnerabilities to attacks, and taking preventative and corrective action when necessary.

Taking advantage of a vehicular bill making its way through Congress, representatives added two safety components for all cars to the language of the SELF DRIVE Act.

Within two years after the bill’s passage, all new motor vehicles must come equipped with an alarm system to alert drivers of rear seat occupants, presumably in an effort to prevent child deaths. Within the same timeframe, research will also be conducted into the performance of vehicle headlights in an effort to improve overall safety.

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