When Sen. Gary Peters traveled to South Korea this month, the Michigan Democrat was interested in more than U.S. efforts to stop nuclear weapons testing and development in the North.

The country — home to top auto manufacturers like Hyundai — is one of many investing in the burgeoning autonomous-driving industry. But without a clear regulatory framework in South Korea, the U.S. or elsewhere, the carmakers and technology giants that have invested billions of dollars lack rules for the road to commercialize their creations.

Peters and other elected officials have been working for over a year to pass a bill setting up a framework for the industry in the U.S., but their efforts have stalled. The House advanced its own legislation in 2017, but the Senate measure is mired in opposition from several members.

"Every day that goes by, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage against European manufacturers and Asian manufacturers," Peters told the Washington Examiner.

If Washington doesn't act, efforts in both Beijing and Singapore to create a favorable environment for self-driving vehicles may imperil America's position as a global auto leader.

U.S. law "currently only contemplates vehicles with human drivers,” Paul Hemmersbaugh, policy director for transportation as a service at General Motors, said in a recent interview. “Whether it’s deployment of a vehicle without driver controls in the way we’re looking at — commercial deployment with rideshare fleets — or it's through sales at retail to the general public, either one of those right now is not allowed under existing law.”

President Trump's Department of Transportation, trying to assuage some of the industry's concerns, is preparing to release its latest manufacturer guidance for autonomous cars. The agency is also seeking to update the legal standards governing vehicle safety to reflect the new technology.

Until then, manufacturers must still include parts like a steering wheel that could be unnecessary in a self-driving car; General Motors, Waymo and others are designing vehicles without them, putting the automobiles at odds with the current regulatory framework.

“There’s nothing in law that makes it illegal for having a vehicle that drives itself,” Ryan Hagemann, senior director for policy at the Niskanen Center, told the Examiner. “The design decisions are where car manufacturers run up against the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”

But while the current guidelines leave room for interpretation, the risk-adverse automotive industry is unlikely to try to circumvent them.

“The automotive space is highly regulated: Every aspect, every feature, goes through a long, lengthy certification process, and that might be different country-to-country and even state-to-state,” said Chris Jones, vice president and chief analyst at technology-research firm Canalys. “That gets magnified and taken to the next level when we get to autonomous vehicles.”

Timing, meanwhile, is critical.

Audi’s new A8 — which comes with Level 3 autonomous technology that lets the vehicle basically drive itself but sends an alert when the driver must take control — will be available to German buyers later this year. The fully-equipped luxury sedan won't be sold in the U.S. because there's no federal regulatory framework.

House lawmakers continue to put pressure on their Senate colleagues to act. Top Republican members previously charged that those opposing the measure are doing so at the behest of trial attorneys concerned that it would allow companies to force customers into private arbitration.

Members are also warning that the uncertain environment could both curb investment in the U.S. and lead to conflicting regulations if states act on their own.

“We can't have a patchwork of 50 states and the District of Columbia coming up with their own legislation,” Rep. Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican and top sponsor of the House measure, said in a recent interview. “It’s important that we have federal legislation because we're talking about an automobile that’s going to be crossing state lines.”

While some lawmakers see self-driving vehicles as the remedy to a growing number of car accidents, public perception of the technology is tepid. An accident in March involving a self-driving Uber test vehicle left one pedestrian dead.

Defenders of the industry say the incident in Tempe, Ariz. was a result of driver error. According to police, the woman serving as a backup to the car's computer systems was watching video on a mobile phone.

In another case, an Apple engineer driving a Tesla vehicle with assisted-driving features was killed in a pileup in Mountain View, Calif. The driver had activated the car's autopilot feature and didn't have his hands on the wheel in the last six seconds before impact, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

“If you look at what’s out there with the accidents, either the folks weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing in the vehicle at the time or that another vehicle struck them,” Latta said. “It’s not something that's wrong with the vehicle, it’s the people.”

While Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles will run completely independent of human involvement, Level 3 vehicles still require a driver behind the wheel to remain attentive for the duration of the trip.

“The tricky part is how we structure a framework to accommodate what will always probably be less-than-perfect technology with the major imperfections of human nature,” Hagemann said.