Hey Google Car, can I get a Lyft? Regulating transportation technology in a changing world

August 18, 2014

A Google self-driving vehicle drives around the parking lot at the Computer History Museum after a presentation in Mountain View, CaliforniaWhen I recently interviewed California State Senator Alex Padilla, he explained that not much has changed since he authored California’s law allowing the testing and eventual public use of autonomous vehicles in 2012 – yet. By the end of this decade, however, he predicts that California residents will see autonomous vehicles in their neighbor’s driveways and out and about on the streets. His excitement surrounding the technological development of cars that can drive themselves is palpable.

Senator Padilla listed what he sees as the far-reaching benefits of autonomous vehicle technology. “First and foremost is safety,” he explained citing the potential of autonomous vehicles to lower the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities. He also discussed “ancillary benefits” such as more capacity on roads when smarter cars are able to drive closer together, reduced gas usage due to more efficient driving, and even benefits for land use since autonomous cars could drop their passengers off and then park themselves closer together. There is “lots of opportunity” for development that he sees less as revolutionary and more as evolutionary. To him, driverless cars are the next logical step after adaptive cruise control, automatically turning headlights, and parallel parking assist features.

In another conversation with me, Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble, Chair of the Transportation and Public Safety Committee, was more reserved about the future of autonomous vehicles. He said he has had very few conversations about autonomous vehicles in Minnesota, and none with constituents. Senator Dibble is, however, monitoring how other states are handling autonomous vehicle policy concerns through his participation in the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Minnesota House File 1580, which would have required the commissioner of transportation to “evaluate policies and develop a proposal for legislation governing regulation of autonomous vehicles”, was introduced in March 2013, but no further action was taken on the measure. No companion legislation was introduced in Minnesota’s Senate.

When asked whether he thinks Minnesotans will eventually want autonomous vehicles, Senator Dibble said that it comes down to public acceptance of the technology. To him, the key question is “will people believe that driverless cars are safer?” In an era where headlines describe large-scale password theft, he thinks Minnesotans will ask questions such as, “Are we well-advised to put all our faith in technology? […]  What happens if the software is hacked? What happens if a deer crosses the roadway, a pedestrian walks into traffic, or something totally unanticipated occurs?” He believes these questions require a transition period, so folks can see driverless cars for themselves. He also explained that transportation connects to our “deeply held and ingrained ideals of freedom, autonomy, opportunity, and choice.” People don’t want to “lose control.”

When asked about privacy and data concerns, Senator Padilla said that many of the concerns being raised are “not unique or exclusive to vehicles … they are the same as our iPhone” or other technologies, citing the use of drones as another area where the use of a new technology is driving the need for legislation and regulation.

Senator Dibble predicts that were Minnesota to pass legislation allowing autonomous vehicles, it would be less akin to California’s or Nevada’s permissive legislation, and “more like Michigan’s, with limits, and controlled conditions, to see what these cars can do.” He also said there are significant public policy concerns that would need to be addressed by legislation and regulations, such as: Who is the driver? Who is responsible if there are accidents or the software is hacked? Who gets tickets? What about insurance? And, how does underwriting work? Additionally, the Legislature would need to answer questions about when roads would need to change, whether they could have fewer lanes and higher speed limits, and who would pay for such infrastructure changes.

Additionally, driverless vehicles are not the only technological development affecting transportation policy. The Senators and I also talked briefly about other transportation alternatives driven by new technology, such as taxi-alternatives like Uber and Lyft, which use mobile apps to connect passengers and drivers. Senator Dibble said that while he believes it is not the business of the state to limit different market models, the state does have a role in protecting “fairness, opportunity, safety, and a level playing field” as these business enter the market.

Thus, when industry representatives approached him, Senator Dibble put them in touch with local government representatives from the Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the Metropolitan Airports Commission, each of which regulate these modes of transportation regionally. So far, the state has not stepped in, but Senator Dibble indicated that the public does have an interest in making sure that these companies address policy concerns such as user safety, insurance coverage for passengers in case of accidents, and making sure that there is no discrimination in service provisions.

Debate surrounding such transportation network companies has become “very contentious” in California, Senator Padilla explained. Uber and Lyft are now regulated as charter party carriers by the California Public Utilities Commission, but legislation regarding insurance coverage and background checks for drivers continues to be introduced.

What became clear in my discussions with Senators Padilla and Dibble is that while technology is providing us with more transportation options, the questions surrounding these options remain, as Senator Dibble put it, “simple and straightforward and hard-to-answer.” Many legal developments are sure to come. Vehicle manufacturers, transportation companies, drivers, and the public will need to understand these changes to ensure compliance as well as protection of their interests.