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States Diverge on AV Regulation. How Much Is Too Much?

States have taken a wide range of approaches to regulating autonomous vehicles. In places like Florida, some argue that the market and insurance companies should set the tone. Other states are much more prescriptive.

Futuristic car with wireframe intersection with digital user interface environment.
Winding roads lie ahead for autonomous vehicles, and not just in the literal sense. The landscape is also a mish-mash of regulation, shaped by various states and philosophies.

The variety of approaches being considered will ultimately determine how the technology evolves, especially around the issues of equity and access to the technology.

“Autonomous vehicles can be one of the greatest egalitarian trends in world history, or it can pivot and become effectively a privilege for certain classes of people who can afford it and take advantage of it,” Tyler Duvall, chief executive officer for AV technology company Cavnue, summed up the future of one of the more innovative trends on the mobility horizon.

Duvall was speaking on a panel April 20 at the CoMotion MIAMI conference to explore the future of AVs. And like so many conversations about transportation in 2022, this one touched on questions of equity and the government’s role in both furthering the development of autonomy and ensuring public safety.

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican representing Pinellas County and a transportation innovation advocate, praised his state’s thin regulatory structure, saying government should show little interest in imposing rules on industry. He argued that the market and insurance industry should be left to ensure AVs are safe.

“I can’t tell you how different it is to operate in this state, versus many of the other states, because we don’t ask for information,” said Brandes, which he offered as an example of the state’s pro-business posture toward AVs.

“In Florida, we’re not thinking about a ‘testbed,’” he remarked. “The whole state is a testbed.”

Other states like California have been more strident in their regulation of AVs and the testing of these novel technologies. States and cities have also structured public policy to give it a more careful focus on equity, particularly as it relates to transportation.

This may not be the most logical course for AV technology, argued Brandes, who seemed to favor a more “top down” framework, similar to Tesla, which placed its early focus on making a luxury car rather than a mass-market car.

“Self-driving is hard enough,” said Brandes.

“Now we gotta say, alright, now design that vehicle for somebody in a wheelchair. And now design that vehicle for somebody who’s blind, and somebody who’s deaf. Those are levels of complexity we will ultimately get to. But, like, do we have to start with that in mind?” he added, scoffing at the idea of the government’s focus on access and equity.

“If we make everybody solve all the problems up front, China wins,” he added.

Karina Ricks, the associate administrator for research, innovation and demonstration at the Federal Transit Administration and the former head of the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility, pushed back on Brandes’ more libertarian view of the role of government, saying that government should set the baseline for safety, access and the equitable distribution of transportation technologies.

“If you’re not going to set the baseline, if there’s not a reasonable expectation that you need to rise to this level of safety, this level of access, this level of accessibility and affordability, [the private sector] is going to dive to the lowest viable product that is there. And what will result? Something that is not safe, not affordable, feeds inequities, and perpetuates some of the things that we’ve been trying to address,” said Ricks.

“And I trust innovation in America to rise to that high quality, and not dive to the lowest levels of quality that we see in other countries,” she added, to brief applause.

Roadways, Duvall reminded the panel, are public assets and it is the role of government to define the safety and other parameters within this space. He added that the federal government is well positioned to set the policy principles that would enable a more egalitarian form of travel.

“But again, the government has got to be involved,” he added. “It’s not just a libertarian question, when the government owns and operates the assets on which these vehicles run.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.