SALT LAKE CITY — While federal legislators recently tapped the brakes on efforts to establish national standards for driverless vehicles, the Utah Legislature is cruising toward adopting state rules that would pave the way for autonomous cars and trucks to start sharing the highways and byways of the Beehive State with human operators.
In a presentation to a House legislative committee on Wednesday, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said while current Utah statute doesn't expressly prohibit the operation of driverless vehicles on public roadways, his HB371 will specifically allow for their operation but avoids addressing, for now, what might be the trickiest part of a driverless future — insurance liability.
"(Utah Insurance Commission) Commissioner (Todd) Kiser's part is going to be the toughest part," Spendlove said. "(Autonomous vehicles) are not only going to fundamentally change transportation, but they're also going to change insurance."
Exactly what those insurance changes might look like is still an unsolved puzzle. National industry watchers have noted identifying who the customer is — the vehicle owner, the carmaker or (if it's different from the maker) the software developer — is likely a first crucial step in creating a new liability paradigm to cover accidents that don't involve a driver.
Kiser's comments to the House Transportation Standing Committee, when asked if a basic insurance framework was in place for driverless cars, seemed to reflect that a lot of work remained ahead.
"I don’t think we’re prepared to answer that question," Kiser, a former legislator, said. "But I know the industry is engaged and involved and wants to be part of the solution."
In his bill, Spendlove did outline some basic requirements for autonomous vehicles to become Utah road-ready. They read much like those in place for operator-dependent vehicles and include licensing and registration as well as insurance, though that was left undefined for the moment. It also establishes the different levels of automation that range from Level 1, which is a vehicle that has no computer-controlled assist mechanisms up to Level 5, which is a fully autonomous vehicle that requires no human oversight or action.
Criag Bickmore, executive director of New Car Dealers of Utah, testified in support of HB371 and pointed out that many new model cars and trucks were already at Level 2, with things like cruise control, collision avoidance systems and lane correction overrides becoming standard equipment.
Spendlove said the legislation is similar to changes instituted by Michigan, a state known for its automobile legacy and one that has scrambled to lead the country in accommodating driverless vehicles. He also noted that while this effort was just the beginning, it was critical for Utah, from an economic development standpoint, to build a reputation as a state friendly to autonomous vehicle innovators.
"Essentially, this lays out the framework for encouraging the development of these cars here in Utah," Spendlove said. "Encouraging these cars to come into our market and anticipating the changes that are not just coming, but are on us."
Earlier this month, federal legislation efforts were put on pause as the U.S. Senate's AV Start effort, aimed at providing some nationwide regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles, was put on hold after a handful of senators voiced concerns about safety assurances and other issues. The U.S. House passed its own version of the bill last fall.
HB371 passed out of committee on a unanimous vote Wednesday and now heads to the full House for that body's consideration.