SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that's been years in the making, aiming to allow driverless vehicles to ply Utah's highways and byways, earned the unanimous approval of a legislative committee Friday, a first step toward becoming law.
Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, told the House Transportation Committee he has spent the last four years assembling his proposal, HB101, that looks to lay the groundwork for navigating the legal ramifications of semi-autonomous and fully autonomous vehicles — a concept once reserved for the realm of science fiction but now, according to industry watchers, is likely just a few years away.
"We want to make sure that this technology, which is being implemented … right now, we want to make sure it’s done right," Spendlove said.
Spendlove noted that while testing of various versions of autonomous vehicles has been under way for several years, that testing has been happening in ideal or near ideal conditions. Utah, he said, is the perfect place for that testing to start encountering some "real world" conditions, and companies developing the new self-driving cars were interested in coming to the Beehive State.
"Self-driving cars need to be able to deal with 2 feet of snow, with a washed out road … or a rainstorm," Spendlove said. "These vehicles will get in accidents … and what will we do when there's an accident."
The bill provides a protocol for insurance liability in the event of an accident, but even that, Spendlove recognized, will likely be an evolving set of rules.
"This work will be ongoing for this committee," Spendlove said. "As lawmakers, we'll be working on this for years as the industry continues to evolve."
Spendlove's bill would allow for the operation of the various levels of autonomous driving systems, which are currently rated on a zero to 5 scale. You can think of zero as being, say, a 1984 Buick and a 5 being a car that requires absolutely no driver intervention, can handle all driving situations on its own and may not even come with a steering wheel.
The best systems currently on the road, like those used by Tesla, Volvo or Mercedes-Benz, are a level 2. These systems will manage your speed and steering under certain conditions, such as highway driving. They are capable of matching your speed to the speed of traffic ahead of you and, in ideal conditions, follow the curves in the road. However, the drivers of these vehicles must still pay constant attention to driving and be ready to take over immediately if the conditions change or if the system encounters a situation it can't decipher.10 comments on this story
Blaine Leonard, a technology and innovation engineer with the Utah Department of Transportation, told the committee that in the current market, no level 3, 4 or 5 vehicles were commercially available, but the industry was working its way in that direction.
Safety, Spendlove said, is one area that he believes will be greatly enhanced when the autonomous vehicle technology is finally perfected.
"Every year, over 30,000 people die in traffic accidents," Spendlove said. "This is the price we pay for driving … and 94 percent of those accidents are caused by human error."
HB101 now moves to the full House for consideration.