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Self-Driving Cars Get the Greenlight Under New Utah Law

The new legislation allows computer systems in autonomous vehicles to be considered drivers and opens up the opportunity for AVs to take to public roads.

A newly minted Utah law has given self-driving cars a greenlight throughout the state. 

House Bill 101, signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert in late March after passing unanimously in the Legislature, makes it legal for autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads throughout the state.

It also redefines what it means to be a vehicle operator, expanding the definition so that computer systems within AVs can now legally be considered drivers.

Proponents of the legislation have hailed it as a breakthrough that will allow the state to lead efforts in AV research and development, while critics have voiced concern about the potential safety hazards of unleashing such unproven technologies.  

Opening the door for AV testing on public roads will allow the local industry to expand and advance, said the bill's main sponsor, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, during a hearing of the House Transportation Committee in February. 

Until this point, AVs have only been tested in ideal or near-ideal conditions, unbothered by more complicating navigational or environmental factors like weather or diverse terrain. By letting the vehicles interact with real-world conditions, it will help the industry advance, proponents argue. 

Utah state officials have already shown an eagerness to capitalize on the new precedent. Less than two weeks after the law was passed, the state's Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority announced the launch of an autonomous shuttle that Utahns will soon be able to ride — in a bid to boost public confidence in AVs. 

Blaine Leonard, a transportation and innovation engineer with UDOT, said the passage of the bill presents exciting new opportunities for the state.

"We're very involved in trying to advance both connected vehicle technology and automated vehicle technology in the state," he said. "I think this bill is a good first step." 

UDOT worked together with Spendlove to craft what they thought was an effective piece of legislation, Leonard said. Between the new law and public-facing initiatives, Leonard said the hope is that public trust will grow around the emerging technology. 

“We want people to ride it and see if a firsthand experience with some kind of autonomy impacts their level of trust, because most people say they don’t trust automated vehicles, but they’ve never been in one,” he said.  

Despite the full support of state government, polling would generally suggest low trust in AVs among Utahns. An annual survey published by AAA found that 71 percent of people are afraid to ride in self-driving cars. Other polls and surveys show similar results, with the percentage of people with high confidence in AVs rarely rising above 50 percent.  

Leonard said this distrust is something for public agencies and private companies to overcome through this process. 

“Ninety-four percent of crashes have an element of human error in them. We as humans... we drive too fast, we drive distracted, we drive impaired, we drive drowsy, and many of those things cause crashes," he said. "Well, the machine doesn’t drive distracted or impaired. So once we get these technologies incrementally to the point where they can be safe in various uses the idea is to replace the human driver for some of those functions.”  

However, critics have argued that safety isn’t being emphasized enough under the new law. 

Jason K. Levine, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said that while he supports the advent of autonomous vehicles, he feels the rush to see self-driving cars on public roads is ultimately unwise. 

“We have serious concerns about testing of unproven AV technology on public roads,” Levine said. “It would be our policy preference to see more of this testing happening in closed tracks until there is a better demonstration of sufficient levels of safety by manufacturers.”    

Levine also said he feels as though the big push to see AV vehicles on the roads is less about public safety and more about making money. 

“AV technology should be about making things better not just striving towards this $7 trillion market, which is what seems to actually be motivating everything here, despite the claim that its about safety,” he said. “Safety would be an offshoot of it, but it’s really about making money.”  

Leonard, conversely, said that safety was a paramount concern during the policy formulation process.  

“We believe that connectivity and autonomy will save lives. We believe in the long term, this will be safer, so we want to encourage it and we want to promote it. But we need to understand it along the way, and so that’s kind of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.