States race to let autonomous cars drive alone

Nine states and the District of Columbia allow tests of self-driving vehicles on their roads if a licensed human driver is in the car and ready to grab the wheel or hit the brakes.

Two states are paving the way for letting robo-cars drive alone.

Florida enacted a groundbreaking law in April allowing autonomous vehicles to go without human drivers. And last week, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed similar legislation, with the House expected to shortly follow suit.

The goal, backers of those bills say, is to give their states an edge in a fast-paced race to advance the autonomous vehicle industry. There’s also a need, they say, to start moving beyond the state-by-state regulatory patchwork that stifles innovation by preventing cross-country drives by autonomous cars.

Motor vehicles and drivers have been regulated by separate entities, with the Department of Transportation setting vehicle safety standards while states license drivers. But what happens when the car is the driver?

Try thinking about the issue as a three-tiered cake, suggests Amitai Bin-Nun, director of autonomous vehicle initiatives at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). The bottom layer is DOT deciding on vehicle safety measures, such as the thickness of windshields and the amount of brake power. In the middle layer, state governments regulate drivers, setting license requirements. On the top tier are local governments that set speed limits and oversee taxi licenses.

“The difficulty with autonomous vehicles is you effectively nix the bottom two layers because the car is the driver,” Bin-Nun said in an interview. “Now everyone thinks they have a stake in regulating all of it.”

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