May 3, 2019 - Technology

States need new traffic laws for self-driving cars

In this illustration, a road curves around a traffic cone.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

States are scrambling to figure out how to govern vehicles in an age of automated driving, when cars and drivers will have different levels of control over driving.

Why it matters: Autonomous vehicles will create new traffic risks, especially during the long transition period when there will be both AVs and driver-operated vehicles on the road.

  • The federal government has signaled that states should continue to be responsible for setting rules of the road, even when machines are doing the driving.
  • That comes with a host of thorny issues for states — from how to license automated drivers to how to rewrite outdated traffic laws.
"Basically it's been left to the free market — the states and the AV developers — to figure all this out."
— Jim Hedlund, consultant to the Governors Highway Safety Association

What's happening: Organizations like the Governors Highway Safety Association and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators are working with AV developers and others to help states tackle these issues.

  • Next week (May 8), GHSA and State Farm will convene a panel of experts to develop recommendations for how states can adapt their traffic safety programs for AVs.
  • In 2018, AAMVA published guidelines for states on vehicle registration; driver training, testing and licensing; traffic law enforcement, and emergency response.
  • A committee of the Uniform Law Commission is drafting an AV law that would address many of the same issues.
  • The Harvard Kennedy School is bringing regional experts together for a series of AV policy scrums, as Colleen Quinn writes below for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: About 20 states and the District of Columbia are preparing for fully automated vehicles by enacting legislation, creating task forces or conducting research, says GHSA.

  • But even those efforts don't begin to address the multitude of traffic safety issues that will occur when AVs begin to share the roads with human-driven vehicles, Hedlund says.
  • And most states are doing nothing, a 2018 GHSA study found.

The potential traffic issues:

  • AVs are programmed to obey speed limits, but prevailing traffic often moves faster.
  • AVs need to adapt to local driving customs like the "Pittsburgh left" (letting the first left-turning vehicle stopped at a traffic light turn ahead of oncoming traffic when the light turns green).
  • Level 4 AVs will stop operating if their narrowly defined operating rules no longer apply (think sudden snow squall). States need to decide whether only passengers with a valid driver's license can ride.
  • Can a Level 4 AV legally serve as a designated driver to carry passengers home from the bar? Would its occupants be subject to impaired driving laws?
  • States must also decide if distracted driving laws would apply to passengers in a Level 3 or 4 AV.

The bottom line: "States need to to step up to the plate and get involved, because AVs will happen and they will come to your state, if only for interstate truck platooning. So you'd better get ready for them," says Hedlund.

Go deeper: States are sewing a patchwork of AV regulations

Go deeper