State Laws and Regulations and Local Initiatives

Despite the push from industry insiders to move towards a single set of cohesive laws for self-driving cars, states are currently permitted to and are in fact engaging in a rather ad hoc way of legislating this new technology. The problem with this approach is that as each state sets up its own requirements and rules, it becomes more and more difficult for car companies to produce autonomous cars that meet the differing requirements, a major setback in getting more autonomous features to market.

However, the majority of states have simply not addressed this issue yet. Their laws do not address the legality of self-driving vehicles. Some argue that, because of the lack of laws prohibiting the use of autonomous cars in these areas, they are implicitly allowed. This seems to be the argument Google has relied on in setting up a testing program in Austin, Texas, as Texas has failed to pass any legislation that addresses driverless cars.

A few states, though, are working to put themselves at the forefront of autonomous technology development. These states see the potential impact of welcoming the companies, research facilities, and testing programs that go along with self-driving cars. Some states have passed legislation that explicitly makes the use of self-driving cars legal, although the conditions in each state vary. Other states have passed more measured legislation aimed at autonomous vehicles. Below you can read about the states that have passed self-driving car laws. For a detailed look at all state legislation regarding autonomous vehicles, visit the National Conference of State Legislature’s Autonomous Vehicles page at http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/autonomous-vehicles-legislation.aspx.

If you would like to read even more, two researchers maintain a database on the website for the Center for Internet and Society of Stanford Law School which lists all the state laws regarding self-driving cars that have been passed, enacted, considered, and failed. This extensive database, entitled “Automated Driving: Legislative and Regulatory Action,” can be found at http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/wiki/index.php/Automated_Driving:_Legislative_and_Regulatory_Action.

California

California currently allows for testing of autonomous vehicles under certain conditions. The testing programs must be registered with the California DMV and submit certain reports each month. In late 2015, California released draft requirements for autonomous vehicles, which included a requirement that a licensed driver be in the vehicle and able to take control. Google was particularly against this proposed regulation, as it believes the full safety benefits of autonomous cars will not be realized until humans are taken out of the equation. Further, requiring a licensed driver will curb the benefit of allowing more people access to transportation, such as the elderly and those with disabilities.

In late 2016, California passed a law allowing a self-driving vehicle with no operator, no brakes, and no steering wheel to operate on public roads under certain very specific conditions. These vehicles must not travel faster than 35 miles per hour, can only be tested in certain designated areas, and must meet certain insurance requirements. This law was passed so that an autonomous shuttle could begin testing, as the testing route mostly looped through a private campus but also required the shuttle to cross a public road.

Nevada

Nevada has enacted laws that specifically allow for testing autonomous cars. Companies must apply for a license from the DMV to operate their driverless cars in Nevada, and the operators of autonomous cars must have an endorsement for their driver’s license. While one Nevada law appears to open the door a bit for a truly driverless car with references to an autonomous car being operated without a person physically present in the car, another law requires a driver to be “seated in a position which allows the human operate to take immediate manual control.” One interesting caveat in the Nevada’s laws addressing autonomous vehicles is that using cell phones in some driving circumstances or texting and driving is explicitly prohibited in traditional cars, but autonomous car operators are permitted to engage in these practices when the car is in autonomous mode, as the person is deemed to not be operating the vehicle. Nevada’s autonomous car laws can be found at http://www.leg.state.nv.us/NAC/NAC-482A.html and http://www.leg.state.nv.us/NRS/NRS-482A.html.

Florida

Florida has allowed the operation of autonomous cars on its public roadways since 2012, and it passed a law in 2016 that specifically addressed several issues related to self-driving cars to attempt to make the state an even more desirable testing location. This new legislation clarifies that licensed drivers can operate autonomous cars on public roads in Florida; states that certain screens are permitted in self-driving cars being operated in autonomous mode; requires an alert system telling the driver when he or she needs to take control; and begins to open the door towards testing driver-assisted truck platooning. This 2016 law also specifically requires autonomous vehicles to meet applicable federal standards, which could have implications for cars that vary from traditional designs. You can read an analysis of Florida’s latest law at http://www.driverlesstransportation.com/13033-13033.

Michigan

Michigan has loosened its autonomous vehicle laws more quickly than most states, aiming to be at the forefront of this technology. In late 2016, the Michigan House and Senate passed a package of bills that allow fully autonomous vehicles without a driver present on some Michigan roadways. The vehicles must still be monitored, but the "driver" does not have to be inside the car. 

Michigan also has a law that addresses limiting the liability of a manufacturer of a vehicle if a third party has installed an autonomous system on that vehicle that was not part of the manufacturer’s design. In addition, Michigan has considered legislation regarding penalties for hacking into self-driving car systems and causing injuries.

North Dakota

North Dakota has not explicitly authorized the use of autonomous vehicles, but has passed legislation providing for a study of self-driving cars. The study is to include an analysis of the true safety benefits, road congestion reduction, and fuel economy improvement that will likely result from this technology.

District of Columbia

D.C. passed self-driving car legislation in 2013 that requires a driver who can take control of the car and addresses the liability of the original manufacturer of any vehicle that was converted to autonomous technology.

Tennessee

Tennessee has taken a different approach to autonomous car legislation, passing a law prohibiting local governments from banning the use of cars with self-driving technology. Further, Tennessee has passed a law specifically allowing an electronic display to be used when a car is in autonomous mode. Most importantly, a 2016 law established a certification program through the Department of safety through which car manufacturers must apply before autonomous vehicles can be tested or operated in the state.

Utah

Utah passed a bill in 2016 requiring the state to conduct a study and develop recommendations regarding autonomous cars.

Virginia

In 2016, Virginia’s governor announced an initiative allowing for the research and development of autonomous cars in the state.

Arizona

Arizona’s governor issued an executive order in 2015 allowing testing programs for autonomous cars to be set up in the State, specifically in partnership with select universities.

Pennsylvania

In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation began developing regulations that would allow fully autonomous cars to be testing in the state. The task force developing these new policies is reportedly looking to the future, considering how vehicles without drivers or steering wheels could fit into regulations.

Massachusetts

In October 2016, Massachusetts announced that it was creating guidelines to allow for the permitting of autonomous test projects. The specifics of the program were not announced, but the state hoped to have the permitting process underway in a matter of months.

Iowa’s Johnson County

Although it is not a state, it is worth noting that Johnson County, Iowa passed a proclamation in 2014 that encouraged companies to use it as a location for testing self-driving cars. Perhaps other local governments will follow suit and offer incentives to get autonomous car companies to locate facilities in their areas.

Private Initiatives 

While many state and local governments are beginning to prepare for the increasing presence of automated car technology, private institutions are playing a role in preparations as well. In October 2016, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute announced a year-long project to help certain cities prepare to address the challenges involved with incorporating self-driving cars into their areas. The cities selected thus far for the initiative include Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, Paris, and Buenos Aires.

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