March marked a dark month for autonomous auto development. In a matter of just a few days, the computerized cars were responsible for killing two people—including the first pedestrian to die at the hands of the technology.
Despite that grisly atmosphere, little has been done in the wake of the incidents to change the way the vehicles are tested, dispatched, tracked, or built. (In fact, some companies even doubled down on their self-driving efforts hours after news of the first fatality hit.)
Allowing the industry to keep on trucking is the lack of federal self-driving laws—a national power vacuum that might have made Thomas Jefferson happy, but one that’s giving bigwigs in the auto and tech worlds a big headache.
With no overarching legislation dictating how the driverless rides should be handled, states have picked up the legal slack, creating a patchwork of regional rules that vary widely in intention and implementation.
The situation doesn’t leave those working on autonomous cars many prudent options. Instead, execs must choose between limiting themselves by staying in one place to perform their experiments or stretching their resources by learning the legal rulebooks of any number of locales.
Hopes that a pair of bills outlining federal regulations on the technology would be passed by Congress have all but faded.
Hopes that a pair of bills outlining federal regulations on the technology would be passed by Congress have all but faded, with the Senate measure lingering in legal limbo for months thanks to unaddressed concerns over safety and security.
In the meantime, states continue creating whatever rules they wish—and participants in the self-driving race have no choice but to keep playing checkers. So what’s the state of state-by-state self-driving regulations?
Fifty Shades of Gray
Despite California’s natural position at the head of the self-driving movement—with a majority of the tech-savvy companies leading the charge to remove the human from the driver seat headquartered there—it was Nevada that first adopted autonomous legislation back in 2011.
Since then, a total of 30 states, plus the District of Colombia, have put some sort of self-driving regulation on the books. Of that group, 25 states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont—and Washington, D.C. have adopted official legislation regarding the vehicles. The remaining 6 states—Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Washington State, and Wisconsin—have dictated autonomous car guidelines through executive orders.
Many states are still in many ways laying the groundwork to facilitate the presence of the futuristic transportation on their roads. This cautious group—Delaware, Idaho, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Alabama, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Washington State—leans heavily on words such as “promote,” “support,” “develop,” “advise,” “study,” “assess,” and “prepare” in its members' various measures, with most states essentially promising to look into the issue further and make the path for introducing autonomous cars as smooth as possible.
Still, a clutch of states fall on the other side of the spectrum, effectively encouraging any and all manner of transportation experimentation on their roads. Arizona—which claims to be the nation’s number one home for autonomous autos—promised in a 2015 executive order signed by Governor Doug Ducey to “undertake any necessary steps” to support the technology’s development. Illinois and Tennessee both prevent counties or municipalities from prohibiting the driverless vehicles from their roads, and Pennsylvania keeps a healthy endowment of up to $40 million handy to throw at self-driving projects.
A slew of states also made room in their rulebooks for self-driving trucks, writing around the idea of “platooning”—a driving formation widely considered to be the way autonomous big rigs will get around. Not surprisingly, the group includes a number of states that are heavy with trucking routes, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
Yet a majority of states fall somewhere in between—taking care to legally define key words and phrases so future legislators can build upon the current measures. They also require checkpoints for carmakers to meet before they can test drive there, and also while the experiments are going on.
California may be the most famous example of such a regulation-centric state, though its rules are frequently used to set nationwide precedents around the technology. Among some of the Golden State’s more stringent policies are measures requiring a number of regular reports from any company testing autonomous vehicles there, and a provision mandating that any accident involving a self-driving car in the state be reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles—and posted for the public to see.
California significantly loosened its regulatory grip on the industry recently, with the newest batch of rules surrounding autonomous cars there allowing for companies to test vehicles that don’t include a steering wheel, pedals, or any human lifeforms at all. A number of other states have followed suit, creating a proliferation of truly driverless vehicles on the road.
Still, several crucial areas of oversight are missing from nearly every state rulebook, including ideas on how insurance will be handled in a self-driving world and who will be held responsible for any accident—let alone the type of deadly incidents that recently took place in Arizona and California.
Safety and security measures on the vehicles are another integral aspect of their development largely ignored by the states, though federal officials have said multiple times that such subject matter is traditionally handled by national bodies.
Indeed, though there may be no actual federal laws about autonomous cars, a number of national agencies have issued guidelines to address such topics.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) released a report this fall on what it expects from companies pursuing self-driving cars, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also issued some guidelines.
The federal statements act as little more than glorified wishlists and lack any legal teeth.
Still, the federal statements act as little more than glorified wishlists and lack any legal teeth—nor much of any substance at all. The DOT document weighed in at just 26 pages and didn’t just pare down the 15-point plan for autonomous technology announced by the Obama administration in 2016—a sparse list in and of itself—but actually did away with most of those suggestions altogether.
In the end, however, the transportation revolution may simply prove too fleet-footed for any attempt at government regulation, with the weight of bureaucracy, no matter how well-intentioned, becoming too burdensome a cross to bear. In the absence of any real federal oversight, one can only hope that those participating in the self-driving race are followers the honor system.