States enact rules on use of autonomous vehicles

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor

State legislatures are spending more and more time discussing, and adopting, rules on the use of autonomous vehicles. Vehicles that are intended to navigate their way through traffic without requiring someone to hold the steering wheel already are authorized for testing in states around the country.

Advocates say the autonomous technology could eliminate human-error accidents and potentially enable more efficient use of roadways. They add that self-driving cars communicate with one another, signal traffic problems ahead, and adjust to the optimal speed to avoid creating a backup.

Critics say if traffic does improve via the technology, more vehicles are likely to use the roads, and congestion problems would return. They also have concern about safety issues that may arise between the interaction of human and automated drivers on the road.

Twenty-two states have adopted rules related to the use of autonomous vehicles through state law, regulation or executive order. The rules adopted permit research and testing of the vehicles on public roads, after certain requirements are met.

Growth of the technology’s use spurred the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration a year ago to set model state policy on autonomous vehicles. At the state level, legislators from coast to coast continue to take action on use of the technology.

Since the first of the year legislatures in at least 30 states have spent time discussing bills that cover autonomous vehicles. Below are some notable efforts followed by Land Line.

A new law in Tennessee is described as a “comprehensive” step to prepare the state for the use of driverless vehicles. One provision drops a requirement that the person operating an autonomous vehicle possess a valid driver’s license. Instead, the vehicle itself would be considered the licensed entity.

A separate provision goes as far to permit testing without a human behind the wheel.

Across the state line in Georgia, a new law also drops the requirement that the person operating a fully automated vehicle possess a valid license.

In Washington, an executive order authorizes driverless test drives on state roads. Gov. Jay Inslee extolled the technology’s “transformational societal benefits” for his decision to aid additional testing.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy has approved the creation of a pilot program in Stamford and three other yet-to-be-named cities to test fully autonomous vehicles.

“Autonomous vehicles are already being tested in several states throughout the country, and we cannot allow our state to be outpaced as this technology grows,” Malloy said.

A task force will also be established to study affected vehicles and the legal complexities posed by the new technology.

In an effort to become a player in autonomous vehicle usage, a North Dakota law enacted this spring authorizes a study of the technology’s regulations. The state DOT next year is required to suggest any state law changes to the Legislature.

North Carolina could soon be added to the list of states to enact regulations for driverless cars. A bill nearing passage in the General Assembly specifies that operators of such vehicles would not be required to have a license.

Colorado and Texas have new laws to welcome self-driving vehicles into their states.

The Colorado law allows driverless vehicles if they meet state and federal driving safety laws. If they do not, operators must coordinate tests with the Colorado DOT and State Patrol.

Local governments are also prohibited from passing ordinances to restrict use.

“This is a proactive solution that protects drivers and says Colorado is open for business,” Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, said in prepared remarks.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed into law a bill to set a framework for self-driving cars in the state. Until now, state law has not addressed the issue.

Among the provisions in the new law is permission to test fully autonomous cars without a driver inside the vehicle. Manufacturers are also responsible for any broken traffic laws or vehicle wrecks.

“Automotive technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and we need to be prepared for it,” stated Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills.

A bill still active in the New Jersey Legislature would authorize autonomous vehicles to access the state’s roadways but only if a driver is behind the wheel.

Autonomous rules are already in place in Massachusetts. One House bill would take the next step to raise revenue for the state via driverless vehicles.

Democratic Sens. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Jason Lewis of Winchester are behind a bill to set a mileage-based tax on their use. H1829 would also permit large municipalities, such as Boston, to ban the vehicles altogether. LL