Utah: the perfect place for self-driving cars

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Editor’s note: this story pairs with “Self-driving cars raise safety, ethical concerns”

Utah has a number of advantages when it comes to testing connected autonomous vehicle technology, according to a Utah Department of Transportation report

“Nearly 90 percent of Utah’s traffic signals are already on a centralized system for operation and synchronization,” the report says. “This type of centralization is key to effective connected autonomous vehicle functionality.”

It also says Utah has a rapidly growing technology industry and the “youngest median age in the country,” providing the market and the skills for autonomous vehicles.

Utah Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said the state is also unique in terms of testing autonomous vehicles because of its variety in geography, weather conditions and road conditions. This would allow autonomous vehicles to be tested in areas more representative of “real world” conditions.

“You think of the roads in Utah — we have everything from low desert in St. George to high mountains along the Wasatch front, and we have a variety of different road conditions and weather conditions,” Spendlove said. “For an autonomous car to really be viable, it needs to be able to operate in every condition.”

There is no Utah law that limits driving a car to humans, which can lead to two different legal philosophies, according to Utah Department of Transportation Technology and Innovation Engineer Blaine Leonard.

One philosophy assumes that if the law doesn’t say it’s illegal, then it’s legal. The other argues that if the law doesn’t say it’s legal, then it’s illegal. Leonard said explicit legislation would be beneficial because it would simplify future legal interactions regarding autonomous cars.

“It clears up any misunderstanding,” Leonard said. “It clears up what the role and responsibilities are and no one would have to second guess it.” 

Spendlove sponsored a bill (HB 371) that would have made Utah the first state to fully legalize autonomous vehicles on the road. The bill was given to the House in February 2018 after the House Transportation Committee voted 10-0 in favor of the bill, but ultimately it was not passed. 

Spendlove said he originally introduced the bill to encourage discussion and education on autonomous vehicles and chose to hold the bill until after the current session to work on it further.

“This is just the beginning of a very long process that we will be going through as the technology is developed and implemented,” Spendlove said. “This bill is meant to be the first step, and I envision that probably every year for the next many years, 10 or 20 years, we will be tweaking our existing state code as the technology develops.”

Spendlove said he hopes to bring the bill back next year.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures database, Utah currently has two pieces of autonomous vehicle legislation. HB 373 was enacted in 2015 and authorized the Department of Transportation to conduct a connected vehicle technology testing program, with a later amendment, SB 56, clarifying terminology in the bill. HB 280 was enacted in 2016 and required a study of autonomous vehicles.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association policy on automated vehicles, one of the goals of the department is to ensure the U.S. remains “a global leader in autonomous vehicle technology.”

A report prepared for the Governors Highway Safety Association discusses the role of federal and state governments in autonomous vehicles. Generally, the federal role is “to ensure that vehicles are safe.” The state is responsible “to license drivers, register vehicles, establish and enforce traffic laws, regulate motor vehicle insurance and liability issues and conduct vehicle safety inspections if desired.”

However, the report says autonomous cars “blur these distinctions,” and states should not regulate autonomous vehicle technology but let the National Highway Traffic Safety Association do it instead.

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