Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE - Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, speaks at a press conference at the Road Home Midvale Center on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. While a vehicle that allows you to kick back with a beverage and a movie for the ride to work or school is still a ways down the road, a new bill looks to open the gates on autonomous vehicle operation in Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — While a vehicle that allows you to kick back with a beverage and a movie for the ride to work or school is still a ways down the road, a new bill that's been four years in the making would open the gates on autonomous vehicle operation on Utah roadways.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, told members of the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee this week that his proposal will shine a light on the state's willingness to be a testing ground for the growing realm of autonomous vehicle development.

"We want to make it really clear that Utah is encouraging the development, testing and operation of these autonomous vehicles," Spendlove said. "We want to send the message that this is something we’re welcoming with open arms."

Spendlove said he took a thoughtful and incremental approach to assembling the bill with content that's been guided by input from autonomous vehicle manufacturers, ride-share operators, insurance companies and multiple state agencies. He also noted protecting public safety was a primary consideration in framing the proposal.

"(We're) sending the message to the people of Utah that we do care about safety and we are going to do what we can to make sure the implementation and rollout of this technology will be done in a way … that these will be as safe as we can make them," Spendlove said on Wednesday.

The proposal would allow operation of vehicles with "automated driving systems" on Utah roads; provide protocols for accidents involving autonomous vehicles; require proper titling, licensure and insurance of autonomous vehicles; and pre-empt political subdivisions from instituting additional regulations on autonomous vehicle operation.

Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras, whose agency participated in putting the bill together, said the advancement of autonomous vehicle technology was not only inevitable, but once fully developed could provide a watershed advancement in driving safety.

"When I talk about what’s coming at us for the future of transportation, this is coming … whether or not we’re prepared for it," Braceras said. "When you think about safety on our roadways, it’s important to remember that 94 percent of all crashes are from human errors.

"This is going to be one of those major inflection points for safety."

National Safety Council estimates put U.S. traffic fatalities at over 40,000 each of the past two years. And while accidents involving vehicles with some level of driving automation have grabbed headlines, one vehicle maker has cited data that reflects a much-improved safety record for auto-assist vehicles versus cars relying only on a human operator.

In a March 30 company blog post, Tesla claimed its autopilot-enabled vehicles are involved in 1 automobile fatality every 320 million miles driven, versus 1 fatality for every 86 million miles driven in vehicles by all other manufacturers. If Tesla's safety record applied globally, the company said it would result in 900,000 fewer vehicle fatalities every year and that those driving Teslas equipped with autopilot hardware "are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident."

Blaine Leonard, UDOT's technology and innovation engineer, said Spendlove's bill eliminates any haziness about the legal operation of autonomous vehicles on Utah roadways.

"Utah law today is silent about whether or not vehicles with these advanced automation capabilities can operate on the roads of Utah," Leonard said. "A lot of developers look at that and say, 'If the law is silent, it must not be allowed.'

"This goes out there and establishes with clarity what's allowed and what’s not allowed on Utah roads, which will open the door for people to come here and work and test."

One ongoing sticking point that's challenged Utah lawmakers — how to assign liability in the event of mishaps — is a problem that federal agencies are still grappling with as well.

While Spendlove's bill creates a new category of nonhuman operator — the autonomous driving system — there still remains a lot of gray area when it comes to answering the question of who is "driving" the car.

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Level 5 automation is defined as "a vehicle capable of performing all driving functions under all conditions" according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but that level is still years away. The best automation on the roads now is about a Level 2, where a vehicle has some combined functions like acceleration, braking and steering, but the driver must remain engaged with driving and "monitoring the environment at all times."

So, until Level 5 vehicles are the norm, automation systems will include "pass-off" moments, when a human operator is taking over from an autonomous system and vice-versa. Navigating that from a liability standpoint is, according to Spendlove, part of the work remaining to be done.

Spendlove said he hopes to have his bill ready for consideration in the 2019 legislative session.