The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf and Amanda Essex

Regulating autonomous vehicles on the nation's roadways isn't as easy as programming them to know that red means stop and green means go.

Computers in the trunk of an autonomous carExhibit A: "The Pittsburgh Left," a traffic quirk in the Steel City (and a few other places) in which drivers allow a vehicle turning left as soon as the light turns green to proceed in front of vehicles going straight.

While the "Pittsburgh Left" flaunts traffic laws, it is an accepted part of Pittsburgh driving. How do you program that into an automated vehicle's software? Do you want to? What happens if you don't?

Dealing with the Pittsburgh Left and other local traffic anomalies was a small aspect of an NCSL Capitol Forum session last week on "Regulating Autonomous Vehicles - The Role of States and the Federal Government."

It's important that states continue to regulate insurance and liability issues, said Ryan Gammelgard, an attorney in State Farm Insurance's public policy resource group.

"When you look at other insurance companies, a recurring issue is the importance of data access," he said. "Insurance companies rely on black boxes and it's really critical insurance companies have access to that data."

Catherine Curtis, director of vehicle programs for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said it "gets really tricky" when the vehicle starts becoming the driver and taking over the role of the driver.

"How do you ensure that that vehicle follows the rules of the road and operates as safely as a driver would? When both have to jointly operate, how can we make sure the driver can switch between driver control and autonomous? Law enforcement officers are very concerned about how their roles change. Was the driver supposed to make a decision? Did the vehicle make a decision it shouldn't have?

"We see our role at DMVs to bring various parts together to ensure vehicles are safely tested and deployed and that drivers know how to safely operate them when they buy them."

A huge national interest exists to realize the full potential of these vehicles, said Nat Beuse, associate administrator, vehicle safety research for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "State have a role in this but they need to keep in mind the impact. We have a clean slate in some ways and an opportunity together to build the framework and rules that we want."

David Strickland, former NHTSA head who now represents the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying and advocacy group whose members include Ford, Google, Uber, Lyft and Volvo, said the focus now is on licensing of the operator.

"We need a delineated path for people without the physical ability to drive but who may be the owner of the car. There are going to be fewer people who need a driver's license. There will be a model of shared ownership so there may be less vehicle ownership. Fewer drivers and fewer vehicles could have an impact on state revenue in the long-term."

Ryan said virtually every insurance policy on the market now "were all drafted thinking there was going to be a human operator, never with this understanding that we were going to be in this highly-automated world that we're not going to have a steering wheel. How do you mange the liability system that currently exists in this new world," including a manufacturer's liability if a vehicle is modified after it leaves the plant.

"There is a push among some advocates to explore no-fault insurance across the country and in theory that sounds great but in practice it's not always so easy to implement."

Curtis said DMV personnel are concerned about drivers being able to take their hands and feet off the controls.

"Who's teaching people how to do that. I ask how to operate cruise control and the salesman tells me the manuals are in glove compartment but let me show you how to set up your cell phone. If it has automatic braking, maybe if I was going 70 mph and something jumps out at me I think I'm not going to hit it but it turns out that only works if I'm going 25 or 35 mph.

"How is the next person who owns that car going to know. There needs to be something in the car that walks you through visually and verbally about how this system works and stays with the vehicle after it's sold."

(A small group of state legislators and legislative staff participated in autonomous vehicle demonstration rides. The Volkswagen Group of America and Audi of America showcased the capabilities of the Audi piloted driving A7 prototype. This car is capable of hands-free driving at full, posted freeway speeds, technology that is expected to reach the market by 2020-21. Led by an Audi research engineer, NCSL members were able to experience the autonomous vehicle technology on I-395 in Virginia just across the Potomac river from Washington D.C.)

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog. Amanda Essex is a policy associate in NCSL's Transportation program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.