Study: States should require licensed drivers for robot cars

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — A group that represents state highway safety offices is urging states like Michigan to consider requiring licenses for self-driving cars operators because they likely are decades away from being fully automated. 

The Washington-based Governors Highway Safety Association says in a study released Wednesday that states should prepare themselves for establishing licensing requirements for self-driving cars because autonomous vehicles “for the foreseeable future will share driving responsibility with humans, and are likely do so for many decades.”

The findings represent an injection of regulatory reality into the race for autonomous leadership. The battle for next-generation leadership is pitting Detroit’s automakers and their global rivals against a deep-pocketed tech industry based in China and, especially, Silicon Valley.

The study recommends that states “consider laws requiring or assuming that a licensed driver is present in each vehicle, especially for AVs (autonomous vehicles) in which a licensed driver may be called upon to take control.” It also suggests that states “update traffic laws to accommodate AVs and help to prepare state driver licensing agencies to identify and register AVs” and “establish law enforcement policies and procedures regarding AV operations and train all patrol officers in these policies and procedures.

Federal regulators have thus far shied away from the notion of craft rules for self-driving car operators, focusing instead on testing and regulation of the autonomous vehicles. They argue states are best equipped to continued setting rules for road as they do now. 

“States need to consider a number of new issues related to the practical deployment of this technology,” Jim Hedlund, a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who authored the study, said in a statement. “One of the most important goals should be to educate the public about the benefits and risks of this technology, how to use it safely, and drive near AVs in traffic.”

Congress is working to craft rules that would govern the testing and eventual sale for mass consumption of self-driving cars. The Senate is debating a new law that would allow each automaker to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars per year, but the measure has been held up for nearly a year amid concerns about the liability rules that would govern crashes involving self-driving cars and the vulnerability of driverless systems to potential hackers. 

A similar self-driving measure sailed through the House of Representatives with relatively ease last year. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation also has proposed self-driving rules that focus on a set of 15 guidelines calling for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on their testing and safety of autonomous cars to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public. 

Under the DOT proposal, before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads, automakers would be required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if those systems fail.

The Trump administration has said it is working on what would be a third set of voluntary guidelines for self-driving cars issued by the federal government since 2016.

Both sets of proposed rules call for states and other local jurisdictions to defer to the federal government on regulations related to self-driving cars’ design, construction, software or communication. Under both proposals, states still would be allowed to regulate registration, licensing, liability, education and training, insurance or traffic laws.

Jonathan Adkins, GHSA Executive Director, said states will likely have to continue to play a role in self-driving car regulation for long after the technology is initially rolled out. 

“Imperfect human drivers aren’t disappearing anytime soon and even with self-driving technology, they will still be in a position to cause crashes, deaths, and injuries on our roads,” Adkins said. “As autonomous vehicle technology advances, states still must invest in programs to prioritize safe travel behavior.”

Ryan Gammelgard, counsel at State Farm, which funded the self-driving study, said in an interview with The Detroit News that the insurance industry agrees it is "very important to not lose sight of the role that humans are going to have in this. 

"We worked really hard over the last year to make sure insurance is at the table as some of these issues are being discussed," he said. "We can’t ignore reality that automakers and tech companies are spending $80 to $100 billion in order to implement this technology."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing