Autonomous vehicles: How legal are they?

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

Technology is moving faster than a speeding bullet, and at least in Nevada the law seems to be keeping pace. But the very fact that Nevada is ahead of the pack underlines a challenge for autonomous trucks – or any autonomous vehicles – going forward.

For autonomous trucks and cars to work in the real world, they’ll need to operate far beyond Nevada. Yet self-driving vehicles are being dealt with on a state-by-state basis when they’re dealt with at all, and the federal government has yet to step forward.

But we’ll come back to that.

Right now Nevada seems intent on becoming a cradle for emerging transportation technologies – the firing chamber for that speeding bullet, so to speak.

Why Nevada?

Sources say Nevada is “the 7th most extensive, the 35th most populous, and the 9th least densely populated of the 50 United States.” That means few people but lots of arid, unpopulated land and uncluttered roads – more than 83,000 miles worth, 560 of those miles on Interstates. It seems an ideal laboratory for experimental cars and trucks.

And no transportation program in recent memory, experimental or otherwise, has kicked off with more razzle-dazzle than Daimler unleashed May 5 at the Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas – turning that venerable landmark into an IMAX-like movie screen for media from around the world. Daimler put Nevada in the limelight.

“Daimler is the first testing license for autonomous commercial vehicles,” said Kevin Malone, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. “Licenses have been approved for Google, Audi, Continental and Delphi in addition to Daimler.”

Nevada is obviously proud of its status as first in the nation. When Daimler’s Inspiration truck took off on its ceremonial first ride on a U.S. highway May 5,

Gov. Brian Sandoval was on board. No surprise there. Sandoval has been publicly pursuing transportation innovators like Daimler, including the drone industry.

Maybe it’s coincidence, but Nevada’s first autonomous vehicle law was introduced in March of 2011, two months after Sandoval’s first inauguration. He signed that bill into law in July of that year. The first set of regulations was approved in February 2012 and a month later, Google was the first applicant granted a license to test autonomous cars on Nevada roads. It was the first such license anywhere in the U.S.

But Nevada isn’t the only state interested in autonomous vehicles. California, Florida, and Michigan have enacted similar laws. So has Washington, D.C. According to the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law, 11 other states have bills at various stages of consideration – Oregon, Idaho, North Dakota, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Bills in 12 other states have failed, but that doesn’t mean autonomous vehicles aren’t coming anyway.

Virtually every major carmaker promises autonomous models by 2020, and some won’t be waiting that long. Cadillac plans to jump the line in 2017 with what it calls Super Cruise, which combines automatic steering, adaptive cruise, and lane recognition. Super Cruise will function fully only at highway speeds. Mercedes and Infiniti are on similar tracks. Volvo on its automobile side has demonstrated a car that essentially drives itself in heavy, stop-and-go traffic below 30 mph.

Why would automakers be releasing at least partially autonomous models when most state law simply doesn’t recognize them?

The short answer, according to Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor at the School of Law and the School of Engineering at the University of South Carolina, could be that autonomous steering, braking, and accelerating without real-time human input is probably legal in most places by default.

In a scholarly paper published in 2012 and updated last year, Smith reasons that whatever is not prohibited by law is probably legal. Laws in most states simply do not mention autonomous vehicles.

“The states that have passed legislation on autonomous vehicles have not necessarily made it easier to operate them,” Smith told Land Line. “In fact, in some cases they could have done the opposite.”

In Nevada, California, Florida and Michigan, new laws first define autonomous vehicles then set about limiting how, where and by whom they can be used. That may reassure the public, but it hasn’t pleased the automotive folks.

For example, Google, a pioneer in self-driving vehicles, criticized California’s new laws. The company helped write the legislation in Michigan, but finally withdrew support for the final bill. In both cases, Google charged new laws full of restrictions would discourage innovation and hinder rather than help the development of autonomous cars.

On the other hand, if Smith is right, this stuff will probably be legal in those states that failed to adopt autonomous vehicle laws as well as in states where the subject hasn’t even come up.

But Smith says regulators at both the state and federal levels will be ready to pounce if unregulated autonomous cars run amok – or even upset the local police.

Smith added that most states are very interested in advanced truck technology because the benefits it affords – better fuel mileage, fewer accidents, and more efficient highway usage – are easy to quantify. Officials, he said, are looking at platooning as well as at autonomous trucks.

Meanwhile, in Nevada the only place where autonomous trucks are specifically legal, Jude Hurin, driver programs manager at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, described some of the requirements Daimler must meet to carry out its testing programs on Nevada roads.

Hurin told Land Line that for now a qualified driver must be behind the wheel and a second driver must be in the passenger seat. The backup driver need not have an AV (autonomous vehicle) endorsement. Future licensing for drivers will include that AV license endorsement.

Currently, because the truck is in the testing phase, Daimler and Freightliner employees who are appropriately licensed and trained will be permitted to operate the two test vehicles on-highway in Nevada. LL