Cars that communicate with each other are already on the road. Susan Kuchinskas looks at Nevada's new regulations for insight into how the V2V legal and regulatory infrastructure can be developed
Autonomous vehicles are already a reality. Several Google vehicles, tricked out with laser range finders, drive all over Silicon Valley and appear at trade shows. Meanwhile, Continental aims to obtain the first autonomous vehicle license in Nevada for a Volkswagen Passat that uses mostly off-the-shelf components.
In April, the Nevada Legislative Commission approved regulations allowing the operation of self-driving vehicles on the state’s roadways. In order to qualify for the red Nevada license plate indicating a test vehicle, the car must have completed 10,000 miles on Nevada roads. Eventually, when the technology is ready for general public use, a green license plate will be issued to private, autonomous vehicles.
Several other states in the US are considering similar proposals, in still another example of how private enterprise is racing ahead of federal regulation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulates original equipment in new vehicles, which would include factory-installed radar, sensors, and scanners that let a car drive itself. It's in the middle of a years-long examination of the safety benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication using direct short-range communications on spectrum that was set aside 15 years ago.
Private companies aren't waiting for the US government. In 2011, Google hired a Las Vegas lobbyist to push for legislation that would allow licensing and testing of autonomous vehicles. The company also pushed for a companion rule that would permit texting while operating such a vehicle. (For more on driver distraction, see What DOT’s new distraction guidelines mean for telematics  and DOT’s distraction guidelines as challenge and opportunity .)
"Google's intent was to find a state to usher in this legislation,” says Jude F. Hurin, DMV Services Manager III, Management Services and Programs Division, Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. “They wanted to get the legal foundation ready so they can move their product eventually into the market." In February, the laws were approved, leaving the Nevada DMV to figure out how to implement them—in four months.
Luckily for the DMV staff, where there's an industry will, there's a way. “We met with lots of different vehicle manufacturers, vehicle parts manufacturers, and university researchers. We found there were a lot of people working on autonomous technology," recalls Hawkins-Fancher, a Management Analyst II.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, State Farm, Bosch and Stanford University were among the participants helping shape the resulting requirements, which include having two live humans in the autonomous vehicle and completing 10,000 miles of road tests. "One of the biggest challenges at the very beginning was the definition of autonomous," Hurin says.
The bill already had a definition, but there were concerns about who had liability for equipment attached to a vehicle. The DMV team defined that further, and it also defined ‘operator’ to make it clear that the person who operates the vehicle is the operator—even if he or she is not in the vehicle. "Law enforcement says, 'If you're speeding and you're in autonomous mode, we will still cite you for speeding,'" Hurin says. (For more on V2V, see Special report: Telematics and V2V/V2X technologies .)
Both Hurin and Hawkins-Fancher note that they were careful to craft the regulations in a way that would encourage automakers to use Nevada as their test site. "We realized that each of these manufacturers is taking different approaches to the technology. We wanted to make sure our regulations weren't dictating how they developed their technologies," Hawkins-Fancher says.
NHTSA can overrule any state legislation, in theory. But a federal government attempt to make illegal already-licensed autonomous vehicles would be politically disastrous, especially with Google in the picture. Hurin says his team has heard through the grapevine that NHTSA will support the Nevada regulations. He adds, "NHTSA had no safety standards on this. They wanted to know if we had any extra data we could share."
If vehicle-to vehicle communications devices such as DSRC modems are eventually mandated, some worry that these systems might infringe on citizens' right to drive around without being tracked. Moreover, some of the information generated could be quite valuable. Already, companies like Inrix use data generated by partners such as logistics companies to provide enhanced, real-time traffic information.
Paul Laurenza, an attorney at law firm Dykema Gossett PPLC, says we can look to existing regulations for electronic recording devices (EDRs) for a workable model. In that case, NHTSA left privacy and related issues to state law. Those issues include who owns the EDR data, how it may be used in civil litigation or criminal proceedings, how it may be accessed for law enforcement purposes, and how private parties such as insurers may access the data.
The Nevada DMV grappled with this, especially with the auto manufacturers. It ultimately required that autonomous vehicles have a separate EDR that captures 50 seconds prior to an accident. "That will allow a company to see whether it was in autonomous mode prior to an accident," Hurin says. He notes that Google's vehicle has a 360-degree view around it, offering improved information in case of an accident.
The insurance companies consulting with the Nevada DMV were surprisingly positive about autonomous driving. Everyone from US DOT to Google has been talking up the improved safety of replacing human error with error-free machines; evidently, insurers got the message.
"We were prepared for insurance companies to say they would bump up insurance rates," Hurin says. "But they thought, even after taking test drives, they're going to play it by ear. We know there will eventually be liability questions or court cases to deal with, but they felt there wasn’t justification to make any major changes."
In fact, insurance companies thought autonomous technology could eventually reduce premiums. That does not mean there won't be litigation when, for example, someone's car gets creamed at a four-way stop by an autonomous vehicle whose driver is texting.
But when those first cases do hit the courts, Laurenza says there will be plenty of precedent: "We're not writing on a blank tablet from a legal and policy standpoint. Failure of electronic warning systems is very common." The legal system will be able to draw on cases involving traffic lights failing as well as case law from accidents involving shipping, aviation, and railroads.
But legislators still have a lot of work to do. First, Hurin expects that manufacturers will go back to the Nevada Legislative Committee to request changes that suit them better.
There's also plenty of precedent when it comes to allocating liability. "In situations where you have governmental and private actors together, there might be a wide range of risk allocation systems legislators have put in place,” Laurenza says. “If policy makers decided there was something about the system that required some special legislation, there is a wide range of models out there that shift or allocate risk rather than just on a case-by-case basis."
That doesn't mean potential cases will be easy to decide, Laurenza cautions: "These are very complex liability scenarios.” (For more on V2V/V2X and insurance, see Special report: Insurance telematics .)
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.
For more on V2V, see Special report: Telematics and V2V/V2X technologies .
For more on V2V/V2X technologies, join the industry’s other key players at Telematics Detroit 2012  on June 6-7 in Detroit.
For more on the insurance implications of V2V, check out Insurance Telematics USA 2012  in September in Chicago.
For all the latest telematics trends, visit Telematics Brazil & LATAM 2012  on September 19-20 in Sao Paulo, Telematics Japan 2012  in October in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2012  on October 29-30 in Munich, and Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2012  in November in Atlanta.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports on In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report , Human Machine Interface Technologies  and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics .