How Will Governments Handle Autonomous Cars?

Autonomous (self-driving or driverless) cars are still in their infancy.  Autonomous car designs are different from traditional human-driven cars and may lack both a steering wheel and pedals, so laws and regulations on the state and federal level may not be conducive to the testing of these cars on public roads.  Public road testing is necessary to vet the technology and expose any problems before introducing a product to be purchased by consumers.

Alphabet, Inc. has been a leader in this arena by doing some testing in California and Texas (apparently, you can have a car on the road that doesn’t have pedals and a steering wheel in Texas).  Others have experimented, including car manufacturers, and there has been speculation on when Apple will jump into the fray publicly with their own self-driving car.

No formal announcements have been made yet by Apple, but the company has seemingly confirmed their plans in a five-page letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regarding the NHTSA’s policy on autonomous vehicles.  In the letter, Apple states that they endorsed a few guidelines, but one in particular will probably be debated among the many states in the coming year(s):

That the Federal Government maintains sole authority over the safety of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment—including automated driving systems—and that states adopt
NHTSA’s Model State Policy to avoid policy proliferation and inconsistencies that may prevent or delay deployment.

If you’re a company looking to jump into this new technology, you’d certainly want a standardized, consistent law across the United States and would probably want the federal government to step in with a one-size-fits-all type of law or regulation, but that may not sit well with a lot of folks on the state level.  That’s where model laws come in.  (Warning: I’m not a lawyer, nor do I claim expertise in this.  YMMV)  Model laws act as a framework or guide that states can use to craft their own law.  It offers a bit of standardization, but allows the states to enact the law to fit the needs of their citizenry.  The Uniform Vehicle Code is an example.

Representative Trey Kelley (R-HD-16) chaired a study committee a couple of years ago studying autonomous cars.  In the committee’s report, they advocated taking a reserved approach towards regulating the emerging technology:

Too often we want to rush action to show we are committed to a concept. This committee has shown its interest in the further development of autonomous vehicles in Georgia, but we hold firm in the belief that at this time any new regulations, definitions, or changes to our system would shock the market and cause delay in this exciting technology.

To best promote the development of this technology in Georgia, we must continue on our path to provide a pro-business climate with low taxes and minimal regulation. We should continue our efforts to develop a highly skilled educated workforce with knowledge in the science and technology fields, and we must continue providing adequate funding to higher education facilities and research laboratories. Taking these steps will show the developers of autonomous vehicle technology that Georgia should be their destination for future development. At this time, these are the steps recommended by this committee.

The question will be if the federal government will move towards a nationwide standard towards autonomous vehicles or not.  With a Republican Congress and Republican administration, the likelihood of a federal regulation or law probably won’t come to fruition.  It will more than likely be left up to the states on how (or if) autonomous vehicles will be handled on public roads.  Also, with GM’s R&D facility in North Fulton, self-driving cars on Georgia roads may be more of a reality in the near future rather than just a hypothetical.  The Georgia General Assembly may need to crack open that model law and take a look come January.

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