States Gear Up for Driverless Cars

Change is commonplace and expected in the auto industry. In recent years, however, talk has been not only about body styles but also about whether or not a body is needed at all—a human body, that is.

Already this year has produced much news about autonomous vehicles, and testing projects have become more prevalent across the country. In January, General Motors announced a partnership with Lyft, a ridesharing company, to create a fleet of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the United States. In the same month, the nation’s top transportation officials announced that President Obama is urging Congress to approve funding for pilot programs to test autonomous vehicles. And the U.S. Department of Transportation—through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—is prepared to develop model policy guidelines for states.  

More than a dozen states introduced legislation related to autonomous vehicles in 2015.

In 2013, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill that allowed the testing of autonomous vehicles on state roadways, the governor said the legislation was key to the research and development of autonomous vehicle technology in the state.

“Michigan is the automotive capital of the world,” Snyder said in a news release by the governor’s office. “By allowing the testing of automated, driverless cars today, we will stay at the forefront in automotive technological advances that will make driving safer and more efficient in the future.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown took a ride in a self-driving car before a 2012 law was enacted that allowed driverless cars to be tested on public roads as long as the vehicle had a fully licensed and bonded human operator in the driver’s seat to take control if necessary.

“Autonomous vehicles are another example of how California’s technological leadership is turning today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s reality,” Brown said in a 2012 news release. “This law will allow California’s pioneering engineers to safely test and implement this amazing new technology.”

Google executives joined Brown at the signing ceremony.

Google has tested its fleet of driverless cars on more than 420,000 miles of California roads, according to a January 2016 Time magazine story. Google reported to California regulators that human drivers had to take over the company’s fleet of self-driving cars 341 times during testing from September 2014 through November 2015 for reasons that usually included hardware or software issues, Time magazine reported. Thirteen of the incidents would have resulted in collisions if the driver had not taken control. These incidents, however, continue to decrease over time as testing continues.  

In San Francisco, GM announced that it would develop autonomous vehicles for Lyft and invest $500 million in the company.

“We see the future of personal mobility as connected, seamless and autonomous,” GM President Dan Ammann said in a news release. “With GM and Lyft working together, we believe we can successfully implement this vision more rapidly.”  

Predictions vary about when autonomous vehicles will be ready for wide distribution, but state policy leaders have a lot to think about as the new technology gains traction.

So far, states have generally focused on three types of autonomous vehicle legislation, said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina and an expert on the legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles.

He said the most common forms of legislation provide a framework for on-road, research-and-development testing; direct the state government to study technologies and regulatory implications of autonomous vehicles without taking any specific regulatory steps; or address specific pilot programs, generally at the request of companies or municipalities.

Smith, who is working on an article titled, “How Governments Can Encourage Automated Driving,” to be published at, recommended that state governments select a point person to handle autonomous vehicle issues. The point person would, among other activities, conduct an audit of existing laws related to the issue and identify community needs that automation could address.

“The relevant technologies still need to reach a demonstrated level of socially acceptable risk,” Smith said. “This means that the biggest hurdle is still technical. But there will be important regulatory conversations about how safe is safe enough, how certain is certain enough, how safety is established, who has the burden of establishing safety, and who ultimately decides.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, emphasized a commitment to safety—and saving lives—in a recent report.

In January, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that President Obama included a 10-year, $4 billion investment in advancing autonomous vehicle pilot programs in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2017.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” Foxx said, according to a January transportation department news release.. “Today’s actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials, and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.”

The transportation department and NHTSA also updated a preliminary policy statement regarding autonomous vehicles. “The rapid development of emerging automation technologies means that partially and fully automated vehicles are nearing the point at which widespread deployment is feasible,” the report states.

Within six months, NHTSA plans to provide the industry with best-practice guidance on establishing safety principles for the operation of fully autonomous vehicles. The transportation department and NHTSA also plan to work with states to craft and propose model policy guidelines to help policymakers address issues. The goal is to develop a nationally consistent approach to autonomous vehicles, the report stated.

“NHTSA is using all of its available tools to accelerate the deployment of technologies that can eliminate 94 percent of fatal crashes involving human error,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a news release.

He said NHTSA would work with state partners to create a consistent approach to dealing with autonomous vehicles and “provide options now and into the future for manufacturers seeking to deploy autonomous vehicles, and keep our safety mission paramount at every stage.”