The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

Nashville—As autonomous vehicles move closer to merging into traffic lanes on the nation’s roadways, regulations and standards implemented by states likely loom as large as what engineers build into the dashboard.

From left, Jamie Boone, Consumer Technology Association, Virginia; April Sanborn, Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles; Bryant Walker Smith, University of South Carolina School of LawMyriad considerations about what goes into those regulations and laws were the subject of "Moving Forward With Autonomous Vehicles," on the final day of NCSL's Legislative Summit.

Just last month, after four years of work, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws approved the Uniform Automated Operation of Vehicles Act, model legislation for states to consider when navigating the regulations applying to automated vehicles.

The essence of the act is "How can developers of these technologies really earn the trust of regulators and the public," said Bryant Walker Smith, University of South Carolina School of Law, who served as reporter for conference.

The commission's aim was to formulate how a traditional vehicle code should be adapted for autonomous driving: "It tried to tweak laws like texting prohibition or automated vehicle equipment requirement that doesn't pose unintended obstacles to automated driving," he said.

A crucial consideration, Smith said, was who is the "driver." The act doesn't say it has to be the manufacturer or the person in the vehicle. "The driver is the entity that raises its hand and essentially vouches for the legal operation of the vehicle," he said. "That puts a public face on the operation." Also, what does a state motor vehicle agency do to register an automated vehicle? What does it mean to drive? And what about the details of switching between human driving and automated driving in the same trip.

Nevada has been grappling with those issues and more since the governor tasked the state in 2011 to create a set of regulations for testing and possible deployment of automated vehicles.

Nevada wanted to balance not over-regulating with making sure the public was safe on the roadways.

"About 20 companies are actively testing in Nevada and we have low-speed (automated) shuttles deployed in Las Vegas. The law was changed to where it is a lot simpler for a companies to come in and test their technology," said April Sanborn, manager of the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles' Management Services and Programs Division.

Among the categories she suggested states consider when implementing laws for automated vehicles were:

Creating an autonomous vehicle agency so everybody’s not working in silos.

Reviewing current laws on the books to make sure something isn’t putting unnecessary barriers to state testing on roads.

Vehicle credentialing (applications, permits). Do you  need special license plate (Nevada has one for vehicles testing in the state).

Financial responsibility if there is an insurance requirement to drive a vehicle.

Law enforcement considerations including crash reporting, first responder safety, how to pull over an autonomous vehicle, not citing for using a cell phone if you’re not operating a vehicle, licensing, driver training.

She recounted her experience with getting quadriplegic former IndyCar driver Sam Schmidt to be able to drive Arrow Electronics' Semi Autonomous Motorcar (SAM) on public roads.

"We had one challenge, we couldn’t license Sam as driver to operate any vehicle on our roadway. We were able to look at our statues and make some changes and create a bridge to provide Sam with highly restricted license to operate vehicle in Nevada," she said.

Per state law they had to administer an on-the-road test. "I can't tell you how amazing it was to follow behind this former race car driver who probably drives better than any of us. He uses sunglasses with sensors, puff technology for speed and some voice command, There is a person in the passenger seat who can take control in a split second but she's never had to. The I-15 freeway is a monster and a car came five lanes over and almost sideswiped Sam and he managed to maneuver and avoid a collision," she said. "Arrow didn't patent their technology so anyone can take it and build on it which is absolutely fantastic."

To a question about automated vehicles displacing workers, especially in long-haul truck driving, Jamie Boone: vice president for government affairs at the Consumer Technology Association, acknowledged, "people will be displaced eventually. That’s the reality of technology and it is important to address that." She said truck drivers are not going to be pulled out of the cab overnight and that the nature of the jobs will shift until they are broadly eliminated.

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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.