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Self-Driving Cars Can't Be Driverless Under Proposed State Laws

OLYMPIA, Wash. - What if you could just start your car, tell it where you want to go and then sit back and relax until you get there? Well, Google and many automobile manufacturers are hard at work on self-driving "robocars." Now lawmakers in Salem and Olympia are trying to figure out how to update the rules-of-the-road to keep pace with the cars of the future. But automakers are flashing a stop sign, saying it's too soon for new regulation.

Self-driving vehicles raise all sorts of interesting questions about operator responsibility and safety. Like... what if I want to stretch out in the back seat for a nap and let the auto-pilot take me home?

"Our legislation does require that there is driver in the car that is sitting the driver's seat, who is licensed driver," says Oregon state Representative Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis). She has proposed a set of standards for self-driving cars.

"The standards that we are proposing in this bill would require that there be an override feature on the car. So if there is a problem, that licensed driver that is required to be in the driver's seat could take control of the vehicle."

So that probably means I can't order my robotic car to come from home to get me?

"Certainly not in this bill," Gelser says. "You couldn't summon an empty car to pick you up from an after-work party."

And who does the state trooper give a ticket to if the self-driving car breaks a traffic law?

"One of the issues that we are wrestling with is the liability, which is different from who gets the ticket."

The driver will probably get the ticket, although the bill doesn't say that yet. Gelser and several of her counterparts in Olympia say they want to get a legal framework in place so that Northwest drivers can be among the first to benefit from the new technology when it becomes available. But by moving now, legislators could be putting themselves on a collision course with major auto makers.

Jessica Lang, legal counsel for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, testified earlier this month in Olympia that new state laws for autonomous vehicles are "premature."

"There's an open question as to whether autonomous vehicle legislation is needed at all, or if it is needed just yet."

Lang cautions that new regulation could inadvertently curb cutting-edge features. Some luxury cars already include stuff like parallel parking assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, and pedestrian detection.

Jessica Lang says these kinds of gadgets could become the building blocks for future robocars.

"Our approach has been one that encourages and supports this technology while not stifling the automated and conditionally autonomous technology that is here today."

Representatives from Google urged state lawmakers to defer to federal regulators. The tech giant has about a dozen self-driving test vehicles, which the company says have logged more than 400,000 miles without an accident.

Project engineer Anthony Levandowski briefed a House panel in Olympia via Skype from Silicon Valley. Levandowski says Google has no plans to test self-driving cars in the Pacific Northwest until their reliability in snow and rain improves.

"Our technology doesn't do great in Washington's weather," Levandowski said to audience chuckles.

Judy Clibborn, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, quipped, "It's only good in California, huh?" To which Levandowski responded, "Right now, yes."

Clibborn promptly declared the push to set Washington state standards "not cooked yet" and parked it on the spot.

Still, insurance lobbyist Mel Sorenson stepped to the mic to urge lawmakers to clarify now that human drivers are accountable and liable in case of an accident.

"There are issues that need to be addressed early on in any discussion about autonomous vehicles that bear on insurance issues."

So how soon could a fully autonomous vehicle come to a showroom near you? That depends on who you ask. A common answer from industry insiders is: sometime after 2020.

The Nevada, California and Florida legislatures have already authorized autonomous vehicle testing in their states. Michigan is among several other states considering doing the same this winter.

On the Web:

Oregon HB 2428: Autonomous vehicles in Oregon - Oregon Legislature
Washington HB 1439: Rules for autonomous vehicles - Washington Legislature
Washington HB 1649: Development of Autonomous vehicles - Washington Legislature
Self-driving car update - Google
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers - official site

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.