Is it lawful for a car to drive itself? In the absence of any law to the contrary, it should well be. A new bill is working its way through the Nevada state legislature that would remove any doubt in that state. A.B. 511 directs the Nevada Department of Transportation to authorize autonomous vehicle testing in certain geographic areas of Nevada. Should vehicles meet Nevada DOT standards, they would be permitted to "operate on a highway." The bill defines not only autonomous vehicle, but artificial intelligence as well. AI is "the use of computers and related equipment to enable a machine to duplicate or mimic the behavior of human beings." An autonomous vehicle uses "artificial intelligence, sensors, and [GPS] coordinates to drive itself." To be clear: autonomous vehicles are not yet the law of the land in Nevada. This bill must pass through two committees and receive a hearing before it can be voted on and become law. Some preliminary thoughts on the bill in its present form follow.
1) It is wonderful that the state of Nevada is being so proactive. The potential safety, mobility, efficiency, and other benefits of autonomous vehicles are enormous. Creating a process by which to test and certify such vehicles represents an invaluable step forward. 2) That said, the bill's definition of autonomous vehicles is unclear, even circular. Autonomous driving exists on a spectrum. Many vehicles available today have autonomous features, while falling short of complete computer control. Surely the bill's authors do not intend to require that, for instance, today's self-parking Lexus LS 460L be tested and certified. 3) My personal guess is that it was John Markoff's October 2010 coverage of Google's autonomous vehicles that sparked this bill. I base this on the presence of that article on Nevada's website under Exhibits/Senate. One hopes A.B. 511 is the beginning of an important conversation about the promise and perils of autonomous driving in the United States. This Center, in conjunction with the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, has started a program dedicated specifically to the Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving. We just hired a fellow. Look to this blog in the coming months for more on this topic. The bill itself is attached below. Thanks to Amanda Smith for her insights.