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Google’s self-driving car in Kirkland, Wash. (Google Photo)
Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila

A new bill in the Washington State House of Representatives seeks to regulate testing of autonomous vehicles, deal with insurance issues, and potentially create a mechanism for licensing driverless car occupants and manufacturers once the technology is ready for public use.

House Bill 2131 was introduced late last month, and it isn’t meant to be voted on this session, said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, a former program manager at Amazon and Microsoft and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Legislators have been discussing autonomous vehicles throughout the last year, and the bill is meant to continue the conversation between lawmakers, government agencies and autonomous vehicles manufacturers about the nascent technology. The state, Hudgins said, is not ready for these vehicles to hit the road, and this bill aims to get various government agencies ready to deal with driverless cars.

Hudgins said the bill language was mostly plucked from regulations in California. He went this way because these regulations are a known quantity, so rather than coming up with an entirely new set of rules, he wants to improve something that is already on the books elsewhere.

“The bill doesn’t go into too much depth,” Hudgins said. “The bill itself isn’t trying to regulate autonomous vehicles in our state as much as start the discussion about what regulation would look like.”

We’re still a long way from seeing driverless cars alongside regular vehicles at rush hour. But several companies are working on it. Among the most advanced is Google autonomous vehicle spinout Waymo, which is testing its driverless car technology in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland and other cities around the country.

Intel’s $15.3 billion acquisition of Mobileye, announced earlier this week, is another sign of the burgeoning technology in this sector. Mobileye makes sensors and camera for self-driving cars.

Before going from testing to releasing driverless cars to the public, manufacturers would first have to be certified by the state’s Department of Licensing. The bill also stipulates that vehicles should have mechanisms to turn autonomous mode on and off, and means to notify drivers when the driverless system has malfunctioned. DOL would have the authority to add more rules in the future, like caps on the number of autonomous vehicles on public roads and new requirements for operators of driverless cars.

According to the bill, makers of driverless cars would be required to store sensor data in the event of a crash while a vehicle is an autonomous mode in order to get a clear picture of what happened. Once driverless cars become available to the public, the bill requires manufacturers to disclose the data they are collecting.

Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association.

Hudgins emphasized that nothing in the bill is set in stone, and he hopes that the industry and other experts can help shape rules as the technology itself comes into focus.

“There’s an old adage: If you want to find out what’s wrong with your idea put it in bill form and drop it,” Hudgins said. “That’s what we are doing. We’re throwing the bill out there and saying, ‘OK tell us what’s wrong with it.’ That’s the feedback loop that we’re looking for.”

Not everyone is happy with Hudgins’ approach. Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, said there is still so much to learn about autonomous vehicles, and we don’t know what the technology is going to look like a couple years from now. As a result, he said, it is way too soon to regulate this technology.

Other states have allowed testing free of regulation, Schutzler said, and then worked with manufacturers to get data and start building regulations around that. Schutzler told GeekWire that this bill, as is, does not lay out a clear path of regulations from testing to large-scale deployment of autonomous vehicles.

He encouraged proponents of the bill to take a look at the research available from tests in other states and apply it to HB 2131. Schutzler warned that the current version of the bill could hurt Washington’s ability to be a hub for development and testing of driverless cars. But, he said he is in favor of bringing in subject matter experts to improve the legislation and set the stage for regulation of autonomous vehicles.

“There will be useful, relevant regulation of autonomous vehicles,” Schutzler said. “We are very supportive of the desire to draft, but we are not supportive of passing a bill at this time.”

Uber self-driving
An Uber self-driving car in Pittsburgh. (Uber Photo)

Hudgins and Schutzler agree that autonomous cars will drastically change travel in a variety of ways. Schutzler pointed to the established rules of the road and how they will be disrupted. Anyone who has driven consistently knows conditions, and drivers, are different everywhere. Algorithms and systems underpinning autonomous vehicles will have to take into consideration the unique nature of driving conditions in different cities.

Driverless cars will force changes to infrastructure, such as optimizing road signs and stoplights so that autonomous vehicles can read them, and Schutzler argues that regulating this new technology goes far beyond the vehicles themselves. New rules should complement each other in the same way that traffic laws work together to roads and highways.

“A whole bunch of systems are going to be required for autonomous vehicles to be on the road at same time as regular cars,” Schutzler said. “All those systems will create safety mechanisms that will probably end up in cars with drivers. There’s so much still yet to be figured out that we are really far away from, that to regulate just the cars, is almost silly thing to think about. It’s actually an entire system that needs to be regulated.”

Hudgins said he is thinking about how driverless cars will affect other regulatory structures. For example, he said, Washington has laws requiring steering wheels in all vehicles. With autonomous vehicles, laws like that could become outdated and have to change.

What happens if a car without a driver gets into accident? How does that work from an insurance perspective? These are some of the questions Hudgins wants to hash out before these cars hit the road.

Additionally, the state passed a $16 billion transportation package in 2015 that will lead to a lot of new road projects. By the time many of those projects are done, autonomous vehicle technology could be ready for public consumption, so Hudgins wants to have rules and regulations in place so that they can be integrated with new projects as they are coming together rather than being forced to work retroactively to fit things together.

House Bill 2131 by Nat Levy on Scribd

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