Livingston Harper always wants to be on the move. At least that’s what his father, Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., says.
Livingston, 28, wants to go to ball games, the book store — a place he loves — or to the local restaurant where he works Monday through Friday.
But for Livingston, going to these places requires the help of his parents, sister or brother-in-law.
The 28-year-old was born with Fragile X syndrome, a condition that causes intellectual disabilities. During Livingston’s childhood, Gregg Harper told the Washington Examiner his son was late to walking and late to talking, “but if you met him, you’d want to take him home with you,” he said.
Livingston was one of the first two students to graduate from the ACCESS program at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., which is designed to help students with disabilities with the transition to college, Harper said.
Today, he works during the week at a local restaurant in Mississippi.
But getting to and from work, and all the other places he wants to go, is difficult for Livingston. He can’t drive, so he’s dependent on others to take him places.
“I think it’s frustrating for him sometimes because he can’t just say, ‘Hey, tomorrow at 2 pm I’m going to run to Barnes & Noble for an hour,’” Harper said. “It just doesn’t work that way for him. I think that restricts him by not having the flexibility like someone who could drive to be able to go and do that. For us, that’s a game-changer.”
But that could all soon change for Livingston, as Congress has begun to make progress on legislation to allow more self-driving cars on the road.
This month, the House passed by voice vote a bipartisan bill providing the federal government with a framework for developing regulations for driverless cars.
Called the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act, or SELF DRIVE Act, the legislation says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will be responsible for regulating the design, construction and performance of self-driving cars. Under the bill, the agency would have 24 months to issue a new rule requiring manufacturers of driverless cars to submit a safety assessment certification, and one year to issue a safety priority plan to accommodate the development and deployment of driverless cars.
States, meanwhile, will oversee vehicle registration, licensing, and safety and emissions inspections.
The SELF DRIVE Act would also increase the number of exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that NHTSA can grant. The auto industry argues some of the rules are outdated and don’t account for a car without a human in control. A driverless car, for example, wouldn’t need a steering wheel or brake pedals.
Under the bill, exemptions begin at 25,000 for the first year and ramp up to 100,000 for the third and fourth years.
To receive an exemption, an automaker has to prove to NHTSA the driverless car is as safe or safer than cars on the road.
Currently, only 2,500 exemptions for vehicles can be granted.
The bill also requires manufacturers of driverless cars to develop a privacy plan detailing how consumers’ information is collected, used, or stored, and how they plan to notify consumers about what’s happening to that information.
“It’s a positive first step for the federal government,” Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner. “This would constitute the first effort to modernize our auto safety regulations to account for autonomous vehicle technology.”
Scribner said the SELF DRIVE Act signals Congress is “now awake, and they’re going to be looking at this more closely.”
Much of the discussion surrounding self-driving cars has focused on innovation, but Harper is hopeful manufacturers are keeping in mind how automated vehicles can help people with disabilities, such as Livingston.
“The transportation issue is probably the top impediment to a lot of individuals with special needs that keeps them from being in the workforce like they could be, or being as social as they want to be,” he said.
Indeed, a January white paper from the Ruderman Family Foundation examining the impact of self-driving cars on those with disabilities found driverless vehicles could allow 2 million people with disabilities to enter the workforce and save $19 billion in healthcare costs.
Harper himself got the chance to ride in a driverless car several months ago when he and Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, who sponsored the SELF DRIVE Act, took a ride in an Audi sedan.
With Latta in the front seat and Harper in the back, the Mississippi congressman praised the technology and said it as a “seamless ride.”
“Once you engaged with the self-driving feature,” he said, “you really drove very comfortably.”
Though there is momentum behind the SELF DRIVE Act and efforts to allow more driverless cars on the road, the issue still needs to be taken up by the Senate before a bill can head to President Trump’s desk.
Labor unions are hoping the upper chamber will address some of their concerns with the SELF DRIVE Act, including the impact driverless vehicles could have on jobs, wages, and safety.
Scribner also anticipates the Senate will debate whether to include heavy trucks in the legislation, and he hopes senators speed up the exemption process in their proposal.
The Senate has signaled it’s ready to take action to fast-track the deployment of driverless cars.
In June, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., ranking member Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., released a set of principles for legislation on driverless cars.
Senators have since been working on their own bill, and the Commerce Committee could mark-up the proposal in early October.
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, too, has spoken of the benefits of self-driving cars, and the Trump administration has indicated it is approaching the issue with a light regulatory touch.
“We really do believe this is something that will get worked out, and we’ll get a bill to the president’s desk that will set the standard for the future,” Harper said. “That’s the key when you’ve got great emerging technology, to make sure that Washington doesn’t get in the way, but rather assists on implementation.”