Utah Moves to Legalize Self-Driving Cars

A bill moving through the Utah legislature would legalize self-driving cars across the state and set up licensing, registration and insurance rules for them.House Bill 371, which a legislative committee endorsed and sent to the full House of Representatives on Wednesday, February 21, could make Utah a leading state in allowing autonomous vehicles to roam across urban and rural areas. Under the proposed law, local governments couldn’t impose their own regulations.

Utah is the 13th largest state by area, spanning sparsely populated deserts and snowy mountains — a particular challenge for fledgling robot drivers — as well as the sprawling Salt Lake City metropolitan area. The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Robert Spendlove, a Republican from Sandy, says it could help the state’s growing technology sector to take the lead in self-driving cars, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Supporters say allowing self-driving cars will help to make roads safer because robot cars don’t run red lights, drive drunk or text while driving. (Surveys suggest consumers haven’t quite bought the safety argument yet.)

Spendlove’s bill would set up a standard way for owners to register and insure autonomous cars. It would also make sure crashes are handled the same way when there’s no driver behind the wheel: The self-driving car would have to remain at the scene, just like a human driver does, and the car’s owner would have to report the crash.

The bill will define different rules for each level of autonomous technology, from Level 1 systems like adaptive cruise control to future Level 5 vehicles that won’t need a driver, pedals or a steering wheel.

Though it mostly amends existing laws, it’s an ambitious measure on a technology that’s still evolving and controversial. Spendlove has said he may put off the bill’s effective date until the middle of next year to allow for more work on it.

The promise of tech investment and the prospect of driverless vehicles hitting the road in the next few years are leading many states to craft laws and programs to deal with these cars. This month, Massachusetts and Indiana have debated autonomous vehicle regulation and the District of Columbia has created an agency to prepare for testing and other developments. Legislatures in five states have passed laws on autonomous vehicles, and 30 others have considered legislation, according to the Center for Internet and Society.

Some proponents of the technology say the growing patchwork of laws could hamper the industry, and the federal government is trying to step in with national regulations. But states that step forward may stand to gain.

Arizona, which is home to some chipmaking operations but not one of the country’s biggest tech or car hubs, has become a hotbed of self-driving activity since its governor gave an executive order on autonomous vehicles in 2015. Late last month, the state gave Alphabet’s Waymo subsidiary license to operate a car-for-hire service with its driverless minivans. Waymo’s operations so far have been focused on the greater Phoenix area.

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