States take the wheel on driverless cars

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Posted: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 12:00 am

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Drivers here already gawk at Google’s self-driving car zipping around the freeways. In California, Nevada, Florida and the District of Columbia, the future of transportation is now: All four jurisdictions are setting ground rules for self-driving cars on the roads.

And the trend is spreading. In this year’s legislative sessions, nine more states debated driverless car bills. While most of the bills died in committees, Michigan’s bill is likely to pass by the end of the year with support from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, a former tech titan who advocated for the new car technology.

“(California, Nevada and Florida) are ahead of us, and aren’t we the automotive capitol of the world?” Snyder said earlier this year. “So, I think we should be stepping it up here and make sure we are on the forefront of advances (in) vehicles and opportunity.”

Legislation is just the beginning. These laws authorize companies to test their vehicles on private roads, then public roads. After that, the states and the U.S. Department of Transportation must write rules to allow an average car owner to operate a driverless car when it becomes commercially available.

That could be as soon as 2017, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin predicted at California’s bill-signing last year. While Google is not focused on expanding legislation state by state, the company is committed to working on the California regulatory process, which will be completed by the end of 2015, according to a Google spokesperson. The company is also working to lower the price tag of its autonomous driving system, which currently costs about $150,000.

Legally speaking, self-driving cars are probably legal everywhere already. What drove the legislation to allow the cars on the road was Google. The tech giant wanted to make sure that before it pumped millions of dollars into driverless cars, the cars were explicitly legal and encouraged, rather than probably legal and tolerated, said David Estrada, former legal director for Google.

California regulators are also concerned about the data transmitted and collected from self-driving cars.

The ripple effects of the technology are enormous. For instance, California’s state vehicle code, like most states, has more than 40,000 provisions, all of which assume there is a driver in control of the vehicle at all times. Each of those will have to be reviewed.

The technology will also force regulators to rethink the car-and-driver relationship. For instance, instead of certifying that a driver can pass a road test, the state might certify that a car can pass a test, upending the traditional drivers’ licensing system.

Questions also arise about liability for accidents, since the technology that makes a self-driving car is an after-market system.

At the local level, driverless cars will change the way cities think about zoning, parking and idling rules, and could eventually allow cities to develop small shuttle-like systems, which would drive predetermined routes and ferry people to and from popular destinations, said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. Already, a pilot project deploying driverless cars on short, predetermined routes is underway in 12 European cities.

“There’s a lot more to this than just a fun car,” said Nevada Rep. Marilyn Dondero Loop, a Democrat who sponsored Nevada’s self-driving car legislation in 2011.

“We can’t build different cars for each state, based on different standards,” said Dan Gage, director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 large auto manufacturers.

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