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The U.S. House just paved the way for more self-driving cars

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Thousands of self-driving cars are now that much closer to hitting the streets after House lawmakers approved a bill Wednesday to expand companies' ability to test the next-generation technology. It's a major step forward for tech companies, Detroit manufacturers and urban planners who believe automated cars will transform the economy. Here's what you need to know.

What does this bill do?

The legislation attempts to lay out a, well, roadmap for the research and development of self-driving cars. Known as the Self Drive Act, the bill would let companies that are building self-driving cars apply for exemptions from the state and federal regulations that govern safety and design, potentially accelerating the deployment of cars that can navigate the streets themselves. Under the bill, automakers could eventually add as many as 100,000 of these experimental cars to U.S. roads every year.

The Self Drive Act also requires automakers to ensure that consumers and regulators are fully informed about the companies' approach to privacy and cybersecurity — a key concern after researchers have shown how easy it can be to remotely hack and commandeer major systems of even ordinary cars. And the legislation calls on the Department of Transportation to review its own regulations, many of which define a car by reference to, for example, steering wheels and brake pedals — language that may conflict with some automakers that choose to build cars without those features.

But it's not law yet, right?

That's right. First the Senate must pass its own version of the legislation. It's not clear when that may happen, as Congress' agenda is filled this fall with high-priority items such as taxes and immigration.

Still, Senate lawmakers have expressed interest in moving ahead on self-driving car legislation. Members of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday announced a hearing to tackle the issue of self-driving trucks, which could disrupt the massive $724 billion-a-year trucking industry.

How video games helped give us the self-driving car

In a statement announcing the hearing, the committee's chairman, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), indicated that self-driving trucks could be exempted from legislation that targets passenger cars.

"Self-driving technology for trucks and other large vehicles has emerged as a pivotal issue in Congress’ attempt to help usher in a new era of transportation," he said.

What's the big deal about self-driving vehicles?

Policy experts cite the high rate of accidents caused by human error as a key flaw in mainstream vehicle technology. Roughly 95 percent of all car crashes are caused by human error, according to federal statistics. Because computers can react faster, juggle many variables simultaneously and make unemotional decisions, analysts say that self-driving cars could help prevent accidents and save lives.

Plus, analysts say, self-driving cars could travel closer together without fear of fender-benders. A world without human drivers may potentially reduce traffic jams, increase fuel economy (particularly if the cars are powered by electricity) and eliminate the need for parking in downtown areas because the cars could drive themselves home.

They may even reshape how we think about car ownership. As services such as Uber and Lyft have given consumers the ability to summon a vehicle instantaneously, urban planners theorize that that model will contribute to a long-term decline in car ownership. Eventually, that may give way to consumers paying a regular subscription fee for access to a self-driving vehicle that is owned, maintained and operated by third parties. Companies such as Google have begun exploring this approach by partnering with the Avis Budget Group, one of the country's biggest rental car firms.