States Keep Beating Congress to the Autonomous Punch

By: Bridget Clerkin March 8, 2018
While Congress stalls on autonomous car legislation, states are writing their own.
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Congress may be struggling to devise national regulations for the burgeoning autonomous car industry, but states seem to have no problem picking up the slack.

The smaller and swifter-moving governments in California and Arizona have both signed on to OK truly driverless vehicles in a flurry of recently approved legislation meant to encourage the speedy development of self-driving technology.

In both cases, the bills would open state roads for testing autos that run with no human behind the wheel. California’s legislation would allow those experiments to include cars that aren’t only sans driver, but without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals as well.

Long considered the country’s leader in autonomous car development, California was also first to pass the human-free rules, late last month. The guidelines actually represent the state’s second pass at self-driving regulation, with the driver- and pedal-free changes—along with a slew of others—first proposed last year.

Home to 50 companies currently permitted to test more than 300 registered autonomous vehicles, the Golden State has often been a trendsetter in the new-age industry, and Arizona has already followed its Western neighbor’s lead, passing its own robocar legislation just days after California approved its updated rules.

In fact, the Grand Canyon State may have sneakily surpassed California’s self-driving authority, with Governor Doug Ducey’s executive order approving the driver-free testing claiming the state houses more than 600 autonomous cars. Such an influx may speak of Arizona’s infinitely reliable—and testable—weather, but its regulatory atmosphere is also extremely friendly to the industry, with autonomous operators there free of California’s lengthy permitting, reporting, and public disclosure processes.

With the codification of such lenient rules, the states may be competing to lure the best of the self-driving world and keep the companies within their borders—and away from each other.

Still, the power moves could amount to little more than wasted effort should the federal government decide to weigh in on the matter. The legislature has the power to preempt all state regulations, but has so far failed to approve a final self-driving measure, despite both houses of Congress previously making quick work of creating bills addressing the issue.

A clutch of Democratic Senators have largely halted the process, due to concerns over auto safety and technological security, among others—and they’re not alone. A group of 27 signatories representing interests ranging from public health to law enforcement have also pleaded to the government to slow down and consider the “essential and urgent improvements” needed in the current senate draft, called the AV START Act. While that chess game continues in Congress, automakers hoping to launch the technology will have to settle for playing checkers on the country’s patchwork of state laws.

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