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The Legal Lanes Are Opening Fast for Driverless Cars

As self-driving tech begins to have real-world uses, lawmakers are taking a hands-off approach

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

2016 was a big year for autonomous cars. Uber launched the first U.S. pilot program of a self-driving taxi fleet in Pittsburgh. Otto completed the first beer run ever guided by a self-driving truck. All the opportunities and problems associated with driverless technology are emerging at a faster rate than some experts expected even two years ago.

How will our lawmakers respond to this new autonomous world? Right now the guiding principle appears to be, “Drive and let drive.” Newly passed state laws and a key Cabinet nomination by President-elect Donald Trump indicate that tech and auto companies will continue to shape the driverless future as they see fit in the near term.

This year, California, Florida, and Michigan all passed laws allowing for the operation of autonomous vehicles that lack a steering wheel, a brake pedal, or even an onboard human driver. Michigan’s laws, signed by Governor Rick Snyder last week, go the furthest in establishing a comprehensive framework for how driverless cars can legally operate. The state will now allow driverless cars on public roads beyond the previous limitation of only test drives. It means automakers can set up driverless ridesharing networks, like the one General Motors is building with Lyft. And it will let companies build self-driving truck platoons for shipping goods. The new laws also clarify that the company that creates an automated driving system is legally responsible for any traffic violations that its cars commit, rather than the humans who are along for the ride.

Traditional automakers, who helped pen the legislation, are pleased with the new rules, which will provide a clear legal path toward rolling out self-driving cars in a state where they wield a lot of political influence (Snyder was flanked by a Model T and a Ford Fusion when he signed the bills). Tech companies, meanwhile, are quietly griping that America’s autonomous vehicle regulations favor Detroit over Silicon Valley. Uber called the new law that states only motor vehicle manufacturers can launch robo-taxi networks “anti-tech.” And last month, Apple wrote a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration arguing that a 2015 law that allows established automakers to test driverless technology on public roads should also be extended to industry newcomers.

Overall, though, both tech companies and longstanding automakers are finding states largely receptive to their self-driving businesses, especially in comparison to the intense pitched battles that peer-to-peer services like Uber and Airbnb have waged against local governments in recent years. Their endgame, though, isn’t to lobby 50 state governments to endorse self-driving vehicles — they’d rather have the feds go ahead and grant a nationwide stamp of approval. “Self-driving vehicle hardware needs a single national framework to avoid an inconsistent patchwork of state laws and regulations,” wrote David Strickland, counsel of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group backed by Ford, Volvo, Uber, Google, and Lyft. “The complex and evolving nature of self-driving technology requires not only a flexible approach by policymakers at all levels of government but also one that provides consistency across the country.”

The person in charge of crafting this national framework is likely to be Elaine Chao, Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as secretary of transportation. Chao formerly served as secretary of labor and deputy secretary of transportation. Her thoughts on driverless-car regulation are unclear, but in her past roles she’s hewn close to the Republican mantra that government should apply a light regulatory touch (Obama’s transportation department has already taken a similar position on autonomous vehicles). As for Trump himself, his official policy on federal regulations is buy one, lose two free, so he probably won’t be fretting too much about dictating how driverless cars roll out.

That’s good for businesses — but only to an extent. If Chao takes a completely hands-off approach and doesn’t institute any federal regulations, a patchwork of state and local laws could limit investor appetite in a technology that isn’t able to scale nationally, especially if other countries adopt more aggressive development timelines (remember, China’s Baidu is making a self-driving car too). There’s no guarantee that all of these laws will favor driverless-car tech, either, especially once fatalities caused by autonomous vehicles become more common. And there’s still the issue of general consumer skepticism of self-driving cars to overcome. Laws that indicate that driverless cars are safe in one state but not in another could stall widespread adoption by the public. Statehouses may be dictating the terms of the driverless-car rollout right now, but it’s the government that will ultimately have to define how these vehicles can be safely implemented across U.S. highways.