Hawaii and California driverless car legislation picking up speed

A resolution to ask the Department of Transportation to review policies and offer suggestions for driverless car legislation prior to 2013 has been introduced by 20 members of Hawaiis House of Representatives.

Driverless vehicle home-state California may be moving ahead quicker: Senator Padilla has introduced bill SB 1298 to remove remaining hurdles for testing and operating autonomous cars in California. The bill would allow the operation of driverless cars on public roads, provided that “the manufacturer certifies that the vehicle meets all of the safety standards and performance requirements to be specified by the department [of the California Highway Patrol]”.

If this bill is adopted, California could leap-frog Nevada to become the key state for operating driverless cars. Nevada already has approved legislation for the operation of driverless cars, but this is limited to state highways whereas the California bill does not contain such a restriction. California is not only the home-state of the Google driverless car group but also has has research groups from major automotive manufacturers such as BMW and Volkswagen.

Europe still seems to be asleep. Although the European Union has long encouraged the development of driverless technology, and France, Italy and Germany have very active research groups, they may have hard a time catching up once the train is out of the station.

Florida’s autonomous car bill much weaker than Nevada’s

The United States is quickly establishing itself as the leader in autonomous car technology. Several states are currently introducing bills addressing autonomous vehicles. Last summer Nevada became the first state to allow the operation of autonomous vehicles on state highways as long as conditions to be spelled out by the Department for Transportation are met.
Currently two bills adressing autonomous cars are moving through Florida’s house (HB 1207) and senate (SB 1768). However these bills are not in the same league as the Nevada law (AB 511):

  • While the Nevada law explicitly allows both the operation and testing of autonomous vehicles, the Florida bill only considers ‘the purpose of testing the technology‘.
  • In Nevada, autonomous vehicles need not be under the control of a human whereas the Florida bill specifies that the ‘operation of the test vehicle must be continuously monitored in a manner that allows active control over the vehicle to be immediately assumed by a human operator‘.
  • The Florida bill requires the Department of Transportation and Motor Vehicles to draft a report recommending legislative action related to autonomous vehicles by February 1, 2014. In contrast, the Nevada bill authorizes its Department of Transportation to ‘adopt regulations authorizing the operation of autonomous vehicles‘ and specifies the various issues which need to be addressed.
  • The Florida bill only has one area where it is wider in scope than the Nevada law: It applies to all public roads whereas the Nevada bill is limited to state highways. Of course, as a human needs to be able to assume immediate control at all times in Florida, there is little difference to the status quo anyway. Google has already driven driverless cars thousands of miles under such terms on public roads in California.

In summary, little seems to be gained from the Florida bill. It does not contain reasons for autonomous car manufacturers to head to this state and will not help to establish Florida as a leader in this nascent industry.


Some of the legal issues raised at SCU law symposium

Last week’s symposium on the legal issues of autonomous vehicles addressed many interesting issues. While the full range of the discussion will only be available to the public with the upcoming special issue of the Santa Clara Law Review (expected in May), here are some of the more interesting issues:

  • If a driverless car drives a drunk person home, could the person be charged with drunk driving? This is by no means a trivial issue because all current autonomous cars allow switching between driverless and normal modes. In an accident doubts may be raised about who had control of the car. A similar problem arises for operating mobile phones while driving. The Nevada law on driverless cars includes an explicit provision for this case.
  • The law changes introduced in Nevada and being considered in Florida and Hawai only address the legality of operating driverless cars in traffic. They don’t affect the key issue of liability.
  • Will driverless cars be able to recognize a police officer and be able to understand their directions? How about roadside workers?
  • How about privacy concerns about the travel data that’s collected by onboard computers
  • Potentials for misuse because of hacking, obtaining remote control over the vehicle and failure because of high dependency on global positioning infrastructure.

Frank Douma, a transportation expert at the University of Minnesota, concluded: “There’s probably as much work to be done on regulations and cultural acceptance as there is on refining the technical or engineering obstacles to these things”

Conference to explore the legal implications of driverless cars

Autonomous car technology is maturing fast but legal issues may soon become the biggest obstacle to their adoption. This emerging topic will take center stage at a symposium to be held in Santa Clara, CA on January 20. Organized by the Santa Clara Law Review, the day long event brings together researchers and officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Issues to be addressed include liability aspects, insurance issues and implications for the regulatory framework. More information is available here.

Nevada becomes first state to allow autonomous vehicles

With the passing of Assembly Bill 511 this month, the state of Nevada becomes the first state to authorize the operation of driverless cars on state highways. The bill is the result of heavy lobbying by Google. It mandates the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to issue regulations for the testing, insurance and operation of driverless cars. In addition the DMV needs to establis a driver’s license endorsement for the operation of autonomous vehicles which must ‘recognize the fact that a person is not required to actively drive an autonomous vehicle.
In a separate Senate Bill 140 an exemption was added to ensure that occupants of an autonomous vehicle may cell phones and mobile devices while the car is in autonomous driving mode.

This is a big step towards the driverless future!