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Many states including Florida have cleared a path for driverless cars. In fact, 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some kind of legislation related to autonomous vehicles. These state laws vary significantly in what they do and as a result have had different results. But as driverless cars and other autonomous vehicles become an increasing reality, what should states consider next if they want to promote innovation in this important area?
Driverless cars are an exciting part of the technology-driven transportation renaissance we are experiencing. Unlike human drivers, these vehicles do not get drunk, drowsy, or distract. As a result, it is expected that widespread adoption of driverless cars could prevent up to 90 percent of accidents. With over 33,000 people dying in car accidents each year, an incredible number of lives could be saved by this exciting innovation. Seeing this incredible potential, it is not surprising that many states are keen to enact policies that would welcome autonomous vehicles.
Most state laws have focused on testing and deployment of driverless cars. In some states like California, this requires a variety of registration requirements for testing, limitations on where testing can occur, and reporting requirements related to such tests. Other states have not truly developed and instead have merely suggested studies be conducted on what is necessary for driverless cars to be deployed in their state. Some states like Florida are leading the charge by advancing policies that would allow fully autonomous vehicles to operate without a human safety driver as well as limiting additional permitting, licensing, and approval requirements for operating such vehicles.
Given the wide variety of policy approaches, states have created a competitive set of policies that are serving as a laboratory both for the technology and for different policy approaches. One of the clearest examples of how state autonomous vehicle policy can change the technology landscape is when Uber packed up its autonomous vehicle fleet and moved it from California to Arizona after California banned autonomous vehicle testing from the roads. Now with more states allowing the testing or operation of autonomous vehicles, the impact of different regulations might not be so clearly apparent, but still matters for attracting new innovators and considering new technologies.
So what should state policymakers consider beyond the first steps of authorizing autonomous vehicles? I would suggest that there are two main areas not typically addressed by the initial state driverless car policies that forward thinking states should consider.
First, states should look at their existing regulations and determine if exemptions or modifications are needed once the operator of a vehicle may no longer be a human. For example, in its latest guidance on autonomous vehicles the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated that it will no longer assume the driver of a vehicle is a human. States should consider this national example and look at their own regulatory framework to see if existing requirements for vehicle operators or operation might prevent deployment.
Second, states have not truly addressed questions of liability in the rare event of an accident. In some cases, companies like Volvo have already stated they will accept liability for their self-driving cars. State courts typically been responsible for settling lawsuits involving car accidents and currently despite concerns we have not seen a rush to suits in the very rare accidents that occur. Still states should consider whether their existing approach to torts might limit innovation due to fears of crushing liability and what if anything might be done to balance these concerns in light of the potentially lifesaving benefits of this technology.
With the majority of states now having enacted some form of autonomous vehicle related legislations and more companies testing or deploying such vehicles, a safer transportation future is likely rapidly approaching. While concerns about a patchwork will may require federal action at some point, currently states have been able to successfully lead the way on this important technology. Now states should look beyond the initial authorization to consider how they might truly give a green light to this and other exciting transportation innovations.