Race Against Time: States Debate Autonomous Vehicle Legislation Amid Aging Population

The number of U.S. residents ages 65 or older is expected to double to 83.7 million by 2050, yet 30 percent of the nation’s states do not have any autonomous vehicle legislation enacted or executive orders in place.

by / May 18, 2018

U.S. senior citizens are expected to double in number to 83.7 million by 2050, yet legislation to allow driverless cars to freely roam the roads and provide a mode of transportation and independence to this segment of society may not be keeping pace.

According to a U.S. Census report, the number of senior citizens ages 65 and older is not only expected to soar by 2050 but also represent more than 20 percent of the overall population.

But despite the sharp rise in senior citizens anticipated in the coming years, nearly a third of the states do not have any autonomous vehicle (AV) legislation or executive orders in place, according a National Conference of State Legislatures report and research by Government Technology. And even among the states that do have AV legislation enacted or executive orders in place, a number of these laws and orders call for forming AV commissions, or setting requirements for testing the technology, rather than a green light for allowing the movement of AV driverless cars or AV driver-present vehicles to roam the streets.

Essentially states are in a race against time to give their senior citizens access to self-driving vehicles before this segment of the society becomes a larger slice of their population.

For example, West Virginia’s senior citizen population accounts of 18.8 percent of its residents, yet the state has yet to enact any AV legislation and its governor has not signed an AV executive order. Phone calls and emails sent to the governor’s office seeking comment were not returned.

West Virginia’s senior citizen population ranks third in the nation. It's behind Florida, where seniors account for 19.8 percent of residents, and Maine, where 19.3 percent of its citizens are 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census 2016 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates and Governing data research.

AVs by the Numbers 

Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have AV legislation enacted — up from 19 states in a 2017 Government Technology report. Governors for nine states, meanwhile, have signed AV-related executive orders, according to NCSL and Government Technology research.

However, public opinion appears to hold some mixed messages for how fast states should be moving on enacting AV laws.

Pew Research has found that 75 percent of Americans believe widespread use of AVs would help the elderly and disabled live a more independent life than they currently hold. Of those ages 65 or older who participated in the survey, 31 percent said they are willing to ride in a driverless car.

“Transportation options in many places are very limited for older adults who can no longer drive. Lack of transportation can lead to social isolation, missed medical appointments and an inability to enjoy community features and services. Automated vehicles have the potential to provide a much-needed transportation option that could benefit older adults and younger adults alike,” said Jana Lynott, AARP Public Policy Institute’s senior strategic policy advisor.

However, she added, the rollout of autonomous vehicles requires careful considerations of safety, privacy, land use and traffic, as well as affordability for non-drivers.

AV Legislation and Executive Orders: Race or Pace

Maine has passed AV legislation and its governor has signed an executive order. But it's not in a hurry to enact a flurry of new laws.

“We in Maine believe that a thoughtful, deliberate approach to [connected and autonomous vehicles] legislation will best serve our citizens and the cause of safety on our public roadways," said Ted Talbot, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. "As further legislation is considered or developed, state agencies will make roadway safety the overriding consideration and, we hope, will not race toward actions that may not optimize public investment or compromise other facets of CAV policy."

Maine’s governor signed an executive order to create an advisory committee to study AVs. That stands in contrast to other states which have issued a green light for testing AVs or Florida, which has allowed driverless cars to roam the state streets.

While some states are taking a more permissive approach and others a more restrictive approach, Talbot says Maine’s executive order approach is similar to several other states, such as, Wisconsin, Delaware, Arizona and Massachusetts. Maine wants to initially build knowledge among the state agencies involved, provide an avenue for testing proposals and lay the groundwork for thoughtful legislation, Talbot says. He added that Maine’s executive order is also consistent with National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidance, which calls on states to consider and coordinate the complex aspects of CAV testing and deployment in advance of legislative action.

In the backdrop, Maine’s large senior population played a role in prompting the executive order.

“The potential of CAV mobility benefits for Maine’s aging population and people with disabilities is a key motivation for Maine, and all states, to embrace the arrival of these technologies,” Talbot said. “While no one knows for sure how and when widespread adoption of driverless vehicles will occur, the thought that people who are currently restricted from or unable to operate motor vehicles may have a wider choice of transportation options, including in our dispersed rural communities, is a compelling motivation.”

Ironically a whopping 44 percent of seniors who indicated an interest in using AV for transportation did not cite the need to use it to remain independent. Nearly half of these seniors said they wanted to use AV because they “think it will be cool” and “just for the experience,” according to the Pew Research Center survey.

The survey found that 18 percent of these seniors who would use AV believe it would be a “safer” mode of transportation and 9 percent would use it because it would provide “greater independence.”

Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff Writer

Dawn Kawamoto is a former staff writer for Government Technology.

Platforms & Programs