Yield to the Driverless Car: How North Carolina Legislation Will Navigate the Impending Autonomous Vehicle Rush

October 25, 2016

It is a stormy Saturday evening and you have had a long night perusing around town with your friends while enjoying a few beverages. As closing time quickly approaches, you realize that you left your car parked in the lot a few bars back. On top of this you are in no position to drive home, and none of your companions acted too responsibly either.
If the year is 2011, you likely call a taxi cab to give you and your friends a fairly expensive ride home. On top of what will surely be a pricy towing fee, or a ticket for leaving the car parked in a lot overnight. If the year is 2016, you likely use your Uber app to reserve a car to get yourself home, knowing full well you will have to pay a charge for leaving your vehicle at the bar overnight as well as a charge to get a ride home from an anonymous ride-sharing driver.
If the year is 2021, you likely use your Uber[1] app and enter your destination. A driverless car will soon approach you. Your group can hop in, and the self-driving vehicle will take you to your destination. The fee will be less expensive than five years ago as there is no driver taking a percentage of the fee Uber charge, do not forget the additional fee for leaving your vehicle overnight. If the year is 2026, you likely use your GoogleDrive app to call your fully self-driving car to your location. Your automated car will approach, as you and your friends enter, you will be reminded of the fact that a few things are glaringly missing – a steering wheel and pedals. The car will take off headed to your home, while you and your friends continue to look at your cell phones, rarely even glancing at the road.
Perhaps you are thinking these narratives are built upon a foundation of hyperbole and wild speculation. However, dismissing these clams so easily would be a very shallow outlook on the impending self-driving vehicle revolution.
Autonomous Vehicles Today
Presently, autonomous vehicles process both map information and data obtained from the sensors places on the automobile to determine its world positioning as well as identifying and predicting the trajectory of surrounding objects, like a motorcyclist whizzing by or a pedestrian crossing the street ahead.[2] The software then determines the proper speed and direction for the car to take.[3]
Google, for example, began its foray into the autonomous vehicle ecosystem by first installing components to existing cars like Lexus SUVs.[4] They have since built and prototyped a Level 5[5] vehicle from the ground up, and left out pedals and a steering wheel.[6]
In September 2016, Pittsburghers experienced autonomous vehicles first hand as Uber has launched a massive project to make self-driving vehicles a tangible reality in the Steel City.[7] The immensely popular ride-sharing company began by hiring around 40 engineers from Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Centre in early 2016.[8] Next, Uber acquired a self-driving truck startup[9] and made a pact with Volvo to begin manufacturing self-driving cars.[10] Despite their notable limitations[11], these efforts have all come to a head as self-driving cars are roaming the streets of Pittsburgh today.[12]
Lyft[13], Uber’s rival ride-sharing app, has become bullish about the prospect and adaptation of self-driving cars, with the company’s CEO, John Zimmer, claiming that autonomous vehicle fleets will quickly become widespread and will account for the majority of Lyft ride by 2021.[14] Further, Zimmer predicts the entire fleet of Lyft vehicle to be fully autonomous, without a driver in the car at all.[15] To cap it off, Zimmer expects for private car ownership in major U.S. cities to “go the way of the DVD,” and essentially all but disappear.[16]
The Whitehouse’s Recent Stance on Autonomous Vehicle Regulation in the United States
The Government is making a clear statement that the current administration believes the nation’s highways are far safer with cars operated by computers rather than by people.[17] As has been made evident, the automated vehicle industry is a booming one with fairly limited legislation prepared to govern it. Guidelines from the national government, like the Whitehouse’s recent proclamation, are highly anticipated by both policymakers and consumers alike.[18]
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, commonly referred to as the NHTSA, is designed with the purpose of achieving the highest standards in motor vehicle and highway safety, by preventing crashes on America’s roadways.[19] In September 2016, the NHTSA issued a 15-Point Safety Assessment creating a standard for both design and development of autonomous vehicles; urged states to come up with uniform policies regarding self-driving cars; made clear how current regulation can adapt to autonomous vehicles, and left the door open for more regulation to come.[20] Additionally, the NHTSA pushed driverless car manufacturers to be transparent as to their methods for collecting data received by the cars and how they would share said data.[21] Further, the NHTSA reserved the right to recall any and all self-driving vehicles if it found them to be unsafe to the public. All the while, the NHTSA left some areas vague so as to leave the rest to the innovators.[22]
“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” said Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, adding that highly automated vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”[23]
How North Carolina’s Legislation Ought to Adapt to Autonomous Vehicles
It is clear that it is time for North Carolina to prepare itself for the inevitable influx of autonomous vehicles and not be left behind.
In order to do this, North Carolina must first create and catalyze programs that increases the public’s education on autonomous vehicles as well as its own. This includes not only unveiling public relations campaigns that demonstrates the levels of safety than only be attained through self-driving cars, but also setting up event where the public has a chance to experience this automation first hand. These do not have to necessarily be Government-run events rather, similar to Florida, North Carolina can incentivize companies like Google, Uber, or Audi to bring their latest technology to the streets of North Carolina, by offering tax breaks or by simply showing a determination to get a comprehensive Bill passed. Encouraging the efforts of these major car companies can begin to proliferate the market in North Carolina and affect potential consumers. Once residents of the state experience first-hand the automation these companies can now offer, there will be less push back from citizens. Additionally, the state must urge research universities to continue developing autonomous vehicles technology.
If this public relations campaign is successful, North Carolina should then opt for a similar Laissez-Faire approach that Florida legislation[24] has recently handed down. Rather than require citizens to have special licensing to operate these vehicles, the state should allow for a normal license holder to get behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle, thereby reducing the restrictions on potential drivers. Next, the state must eliminate the requirement of having a driver in the car. Without doing this, North Carolina will block innovation that could lead to Level 5 autonomous vehicles in the state. By reducing restrictions and education, North Carolina can adopt comprehensive state legislation that is prepared for a revolution.
Self-driving vehicles are not only the future in automotive transportation, but are increasingly becoming the present. The potential for far safer roads, more efficient traffic patterns, and increased technological advancement, are evident stimuli that should push both North Carolinians and the state legislature to adapt to this impending revolution.
 


[1] Uber is the most popular ride-sharing app in the United States, it enables users to hail a ride to any destination from an application on their phone.
[3] James Armstrong, How Do Driverless Cars Work?, The Telegraph (July 1, 2016), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/cars/features/how-do-driverless-cars-work/.
[4] See Google Self-Driving Car Project, Google, https://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar/how/.
[5] Level 5 vehicle means the car can go anywhere and navigate any terrain without any human intervention.
[6] Google, supra note 4.
[7] See Danielle Muoio, How To Hail A Self-Driving Uber If You’re In Pittsburgh, Business Insider (September 14, 2016).
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Danielle Muoio, Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Are Impressive – But There’s Still A Lot They Can’t Do, Business Insider (Sep. 19, 2016).
[12] Id.
[13] Lyft is the second-largest ride-sharing application in the United States.
[14] John Zimmer, The Road Ahead, (Sep. 18, 2016) https://medium.com/@johnzimmer/the-third-transportation-revolution-27860f05fa91#.xbb7gf29m.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Cecilia Kang, Self-Driving Cars Gains a Powerful Ally: The Government, (Sept. 19, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/20/technology/self-driving-cars-guidelines.html?_r=0
[18] Id.
[19] National Highway traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation Releases Policy on Automated Vehicle Development (2013.
[20]Kang, supra note 17.
[21] NHTSA, supra note 19.
[22] NHTSA, supra note 19.
[23] Kang, supra note 17.
[24] Florida H.B. 782 (2015).