Experts propose state laws for driverless cars

Experts propose state laws for driverless cars
A group of experts from the University of Washington presented recommendations to a state work group on revising state law to reflect the emergence of driverless cars. Created by Vectorpouch - Freepik.com

One of the challenges for a state work group tasked with looking at the emergence of driverless vehicles is how to incorporate the technology changes into state law while also addressing safety concerns and ensuring the public is accurately informed.

Other states throughout the country have paved the way in this arena by offering template legislation that could ultimately be proposed during a legislative session. Those examples were presented during the work group executive committee’s Oct. 24 meeting by members of the Technology, Law and Public Policy Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law.

“We are a few years behind some states,” Michael Schmidt told panel members. “They’re all ahead of us right now, so we are learning and not taking the bleeding edge. But it is important to maintain that technological development that we strive for here in Washington.”

Other recommendations included:

  • Avoiding unnecessary barriers to testing, use or operation of driverless vehicles;
  • Reviewing existing transportation infrastructure; and
  • Using terminology based on voluntary, consensus-based technical standards.

Right now, 30 states have passed laws related to driverless cars. Another 10, including Washington, have issued relevant executive orders.

Much of the presentation revolved around a new report by the federal Department of Transportation outlining voluntary guidelines for integrating driverless vehicles. Among them is modernizing transportation regulations while offering recommendations on related issues.

While some have envisioned separate lanes for driverless cars, Alex Palumbo told panel members at the meeting, having them interact with normal vehicles “is an important technological advancement that needs to be done. We don’t see a separate autonomous vehicle lane as very feasible for highways and roads in terms of cost effectiveness.”

The UW presentation offered a dozen RCWs in need of revision to account for driverless vehicles, including new definitions of “operator,” “minimal risk conditions,” “autonomous vehicles” and “manufacture.” For each, the presentation cites examples from other states such as Texas and Georgia that have already updated their definitions.

Other recommendations by the UW report revolved around data ownership. Along with updates to state law, Washington can also take advantage of Seattle’s tech hub to take the lead on data security innovation. He added that the state can make it explicitly clear any data gathered through vehicle devices belong to its owner and can’t be used without their consent.

“That would maintain that consumer privacy that we want to protect,” he said.

However, Washington might want to learn from the mistakes of other states when it comes to new policies, Sen. Curtis King (R-14) said. “Why not sit back and let these other states have all these problems and challenges and then step in and use what they’ve learned to create the system that we want?”

As driverless vehicle technology advances, one potential legal controversy is whether a registered driver is required to be in an autonomous vehicle while it is operating. Although King inquired about the possibility, UW expert Leeza Soulina said that type of driverless vehicle is “barely on the road” and, at best, in the testing phase. “We really wanted to focus on the technology that’s on the roads today. We need to know what this technology can do before we start legislating.”

In the meantime, another discussion among the executive committee is deciding how best the public can be informed about driverless cars and their public safety benefits.

Washington State Patrol Capt. Dan Hall is the co-chair of the work group’s safety subcommittee. In its report, the subcommittee’s first recommendation is public education “about the potential safety benefits and risks of safety technology associated with automated vehicles.”

However, Rep. Shelley Kloba (D-1) said “I think to some extent it (public education) might happen organically. But I question the role…of the state budget in that versus the role of private industry.”

While vehicle manufacturers have a responsibility to inform people, the possibility of reducing accidents and collisions justifies some form of public sector involvement, Hall said.

But for now, “I think this discussion should be more about policy, not about the dollars,” King concluded.

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