SALT LAKE CITY — As Congress works to clear the path for the quickly advancing realm of autonomous vehicles, Utah legislators are considering their own slate of tasks to help put driverless cars on the highways and byways of the Beehive State.
And the expected regulatory changes will not be coming a moment too soon as manufacturers in the U.S. and elsewhere are poised to put partly autonomous (Level 3) vehicles on U.S. roads as early as 2018, with production of fully autonomous (Level 5) cars, trucks and SUVs likely in the next three to four years.
Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, has been in the point position among Utah lawmakers on a two-part effort to make way for the state's driverless future. First, to ensure current rules — mostly written before autonomous vehicles were even conceived of — aren't a hindrance to bringing the new vehicles online; and second, to explore what new legislation may help put Utah out in front as many states vie for economic advantages likely to come with being an amenable locale for testing and development.
"I can't think of a better place in the country to be testing these vehicles," he said. "There's no doubt we should be making the case from an economic development side that Utah is a great place to come to and we will welcome you with open arms."
Spendlove, who has been working on autonomous vehicle issues for several years, said he currently has legislative analysts and the Utah Department of Transportation working to identify any regulatory anomalies that could keep auto developers out of Utah.
National Conference of State Legislatures | Aaron Thorup, National Conference of State Legislatures
He also noted that there is much to be learned from other states, of which 21 (including Utah) have passed legislation specific to autonomous vehicle regulation. Four other states have moved new rules via administrative action. Some of those efforts, however, have backfired.
Amanda Essex, transportation policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures presented to a committee of Utah lawmakers last month on autonomous vehicle issues.
Essex noted that California ran into trouble when conflicting regulations, some passed by the state Legislature and others approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles "created roadblocks to innovation."
That example and others, Spendlove said, underscore the need for putting a lot of thought into creating new rules in Utah.
"We're going to be very, very careful about putting any new laws into place," he said. "Our first step is to remove obstacles. And while we're doing that, we're consistently studying what other places are doing, working to understand what may be needed here and being prepared to act quickly, if necessary."
In the meantime, Congress has been busy for the past month in moving its own new laws aimed at remaking the landscape of federal vehicle legislation.
In early September, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved the SELF DRIVE Act. Provisions in the bill allow for the incremental buildup to production of up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles per year three years from now, and puts a timeline on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to assemble new, autonomous vehicle-specific safety regulations.
It also defines the relative roles of the feds and states in regulating autonomous vehicles, leaving states in charge of areas such as insurance, licensing and sales.
And the U.S. Senate is working on its own autonomous vehicle bill, which is very similar to the House version. That proposal, the AV START Act, is currently in a Senate committee but scheduled for markup Wednesday.
Both the House and Senate bills were built on bipartisan coalitions. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that is considering the bill.
In a statement to the Deseret News, Lee highlighted the safety gains that advocates say will come along with taking humans out of the driving equation.
"It is becoming more and more clear that the future of American transportation is inextricably linked to the advent of automated technology," he said. "At issue in the current debate over AV legislation is not whether Congress should restrict or push back the advent of autonomous vehicles, but whether and how Congress can establish a regulatory framework that encourages and enables life-saving, safety-oriented innovation.
"The research and development of autonomous commercial motor vehicles is critical to this type of innovation and should therefore be included in any autonomous vehicle legislation we consider this month," Lee said.
Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets | Aaron Thorup, Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets
Some research indicates autonomous vehicles could reduce driving-related fatalities by 90 percent by the middle of this century. According to the National Safety Council, about 40,000 people died in car accidents in 2016, and more than 90 percent of those incidents can be attributed to human error.
For Spendlove, the safety gains alone make his work on autonomous vehicles well worth the effort.
"Think about the lives we lose every year in Utah and across the country," he said. "And think of being able to save most of those lives moving forward."