Aurora: Individual state rules are problematic for autonomous vehicles

Charity Allen, head of regulatory at self-driving car startup Aurora, has posted a blog highlighting the current problem facing autonomous vehicles of individual state rules.

While some American states are yet to even formulate laws regarding self-driving cars, others have developed their own individual regulations. 29 states so far have passed autonomous vehicle laws to various extents.

By the time all 50 states post their own self-driving car regulations, that’s a lot of work to do to ensure compliance not just in the state where the vehicle is purchased, but when crossing into others too.

“In California, regulations outline specific testing requirements and mandate that companies share certain metrics with the state, such as the number of disengagements while driving,” wrote Allen. “In other states, like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, the regulations are less explicit, requiring less, if any, reporting on self-driving vehicle operations.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is currently encouraging states to align their regulations with how others have to reduce discrepancies.

In a policy document (PDF), the NHTSA wrote:

“Conflicting State and local laws and regulations surrounding automated vehicles create confusion, introduce barriers, and present compliance challenges. U.S. DOT will promote regulatory consistency so that automated vehicles can operate seamlessly across the Nation.

The Department will build consensus among State and local transportation agencies and industry stakeholders on technical standards and advance policies to support the integration of automated vehicles throughout the transportation system.”

Allen highlights that it’s not just new rules being developed specifically for autonomous vehicles that pose an issue, but also existing ones which vary from state-to-state.

One given example is that of bike lanes:

  • In California, when making a right turn, a driver is expected to drive their vehicle into the bike lane within 200 feet of the intersection and make the turn as close to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway as possible. The vehicle should merge into the bike lane prior to stopping at a red light. 

  • In Pennsylvania, a driver is expected to always give a cyclist right of way. A driver preparing to make a turn cannot interfere with a cyclist going straight. If a cyclist is approaching from behind, the driver must wait for the cyclist to go straight on before moving into the bike lane to make their turn. This is fundamentally different from in California as the vehicle may not merge into the bike lane prior to stopping at a red light.

Self-driving car tests in a few states by companies such as Aurora are challenging to program local regulations but “not crippling,” according to Allen. However, Allen notes that “when we, and other self-driving companies, want to enter all 50 states and thousands of cities, that task becomes much harder.”

Human drivers are often forgiven for not knowing exact state laws and technicalities as long as their driving is ultimately safe. Autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be given such leniency.

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