On a sunny July day in Carson City about six years ago, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval literally found himself in the driver’s seat of a hot, new technology.
Sandoval’s turn at the wheel of the Toyota Prius hybrid car, however, was mostly symbolic. Thanks to modifications that included a laser sensor married to an array of cameras, radars and other gizmos, Google’s robot car did most of the driving for him.
The automotive exercise in Nevada’s capital would make Sandoval the first governor to test an autonomous Google car. It also served to drive a key point across for the state.
Just one month before Sandoval stepped into Google’s customized Prius, Nevada became the first state in the nation to approve a law that authorized self-driving cars. In addition to the positive media buzz it generated, the law put Nevada in the position for testing the technology and attracting companies from the budding industry.
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Fast forward to today, and the Silver State finds itself playing catch up to other states in the field. As places such as Texas, Michigan and Florida jostle toward the front of the pack, Nevada is now working to tune up its laws for driverless cars.
One state official who was in the Google car with Sandoval during that test drive several years ago pointed to an industry shift that Nevada did not foresee during the drafting of the original measure.
“Six years ago, we envisioned people buying self-driving cars,” said Bruce Breslow, director of the Nevada Department of Business & Industry. “Now it looks like the first major push is going to be in fleets for self-driving cars whether it be a taxicab fleet, a transportation network company like Uber or Lyft, or even self-driving trucks.”
To address the holes in the original law, the state is pushing for new legislation. Passage of the bills, however, is not going to be automatic.
A common theme echoed by several legislators was the need to balance progress and safety.
“I really do encourage our state to take leadership positions in areas related to technology,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, D-Las Vegas. “But I want to hear more about the safety issues.”
A look at the list of players in the driverless car sector reveals several heavy hitters.
There’s Google, which has spun off its self-driving car project into a new company called Waymo. Then there’s Uber, which has quickly vaulted among the upper echelon of the driverless car sector.
Both have a Nevada connection.
Practically every major car company has a self-driving car initiative in the works, as well. These range from newest automotive darling Tesla to stalwarts such as General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi.
It’s an industry where speed counts in more ways than one.
The importance of getting a head start in the now-crowded field can be seen in the legal wrangling between Google parent company Alphabet and rival Uber. Both are embroiled in a lawsuit where Google accuses the ridesharing giant of accelerating its program by using technology that was allegedly stolen from Waymo by a former employee, Anthony Levandowski.
Levandowski used to head Google’s self-driving car program and once served as the keynote speaker at the Governor’s Conference on Small Business in Reno in 2013, where he brought a Google car for attendees to check out.
Nevada's law now a drag
Speed was supposed to be a key advantage for Nevada.
After becoming the first state to pass a law approving driverless cars, the state expected to get a crucial head start on most of the competition. The very same law, however, is now serving as a drag on the state’s self-driving car momentum.
“We were obviously the first state and the leader in adopting (a self-driving car) law,” said Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “But the law we currently have in place has caused us to lose our position as the leader in this issue.”
While states such as Texas and Michigan came later to the self-driving car party, their laws cover a wider range of scenarios, including allowing for driverless car fleets. In contrast, Nevada’s driverless car laws focus primarily on the consumer side of the equation and have a more limited definition of who — or, in the case of artificial intelligence, what — should count as a driver or vehicle operator.
The limited focus resulted in one glaring blind spot for the state, Breslow said.
“If Toyota sold you a car right now that’s certified as self-driving, you could go to the DMV and get it registered as transportation,” Breslow said. “But if you’re a taxicab company or an Uber, you could not put driverless cars on the road under current laws.”
To add insult to injury, the U.S. Department of Transportation did not pick Nevada as one of its 10 pilot test sites for driverless vehicles. Rivals such as Texas, Michigan and Florida, however, were included.
Michigan and Florida have gone so far as to allow for testing of driverless cars even if there isn’t a driver present inside the vehicle. This makes both states’ driverless car laws the most liberal in the nation — a likely sore spot for Nevada given the reputation it has been cultivating as a business-friendly state that allows companies to move quickly due to less regulation.
Breslow said other states had the benefit of seeing Nevada go first in establishing a regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles.
“Since there weren’t any other states that we could model the program after, we had to start from scratch,” Breslow said. “We brought in automakers, top experts and Google … to create these regulations that were then used as a model and cut and pasted in other states.”
A balancing act
Since its passage nearly six years ago, Nevada’s law for self-driving vehicles has undergone some tweaks.
In 2013, Senate Bill 313 clarified the definition of autonomous technology and human operator requirements during testing.
The bill also added a provision stating that car manufacturers will not be liable for damages or injury suffered due to a vehicle defect caused by the conversion of a regular vehicle into a driverless car. This means that if someone takes a regular Ford car, converts it to a driverless car and ends up creating a defect in the process, Ford would not be liable for any damages or injuries arising from that. Another change was the establishment of a $5 million insurance policy for testing.
Proponents in the state for driverless car technology, however, say those changes are not enough to propel the state into the driver’s seat. To make Nevada more competitive, a couple of proposed measures are making their way through the state Legislature in the form of Assembly Bills 68 and 69.
The proposed changes not only make it easier for companies to set up a fleet of driverless cars, they also put Nevada on par with Michigan and Florida by allowing for the operation of a self-driving car without a human operator in the vehicle, said Hill of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Passing the legislation is especially important for its supporters given how Nevada lawmakers only meet every two years, which can be an eternity in the fast-moving world of technology. Some lawmakers, however, expressed concern about moving too fast.
Lawmaker still have big concerns
Assemblyman Richard Carillo, D-Las Vegas, says one should not simply assume that driverless technology is a bad thing. At the same time, Carillo is not quite ready to go all-in with testing in Las Vegas, which he considers “a little scarier” compared to less populated areas.
“I think it’s something that should be vetted out,” Carillo said. “Start small and go from there.”
Assemblywoman Spiegel echoed Carillo’s concerns, preferring the creation of test tracks to keep the public out of harm’s way during testing. Spiegel also questioned the lack of a requirement to report and publish safety data, which she believes would help reassure the public about the safety of the technology.
In addition to safety, Spiegel raised concerns about the proposed changes in the law potentially reducing the decision-making authority of regulatory bodies.
This could leave the sector vulnerable to abuses by less-than-savory elements, such as driverless fleets that do “long-hauling” or the practice of using longer routes to overcharge passengers, she said. What would be nice to see are more passenger protections and consumer-friendly initiatives, Spiegel added.
“There was no discussion about giving passengers, who would be in a queue, the ability to say they don’t want an autonomous taxi without losing their place in the queue,” Spiegel said. “Actually, it didn’t address ....passengers at all.”
Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson expressed support for the bills, saying they clean up the language for the state’s self-driving vehicle regulations.
The goal is to ensure that Nevada continues to build its reputation as a state that is friendly to business and technology companies without putting out unnecessary speed bumps in front of promising sectors like the driverless car industry.
“The idea is to make sure that we can still be an incubator state for that kind of industry and not put out restrictions — to make sure we’re managing that but not through statute necessarily,” Anderson said.
Assembly Bill 68 was passed out of committee on April 13. The deadline to pass the full Assembly is April 25.
Assembly Bill 69 is still waiting in committee. It was granted a waiver, exempting it from legislative deadlines.
Although the driverless car industry is still relatively small despite the big names behind it, progress can occur quickly when you’re talking about technology, Hill said. This makes it important for Nevada to be part of the lead pack to help shape policy and reap the benefits of driverless technology, proponents said.
Despite its imperfections, the state’s original driverless car law has been beneficial to the Nevada brand, particularly as a place that is open to testing and supporting new technology and getting things done, Hill said. The benefits could further expand in the form of jobs, highway safety and congestion relief if the sector takes off.
“Certainly, we’re as competitive as anybody out there (in the autonomous car sector), at least our attitude is,” Hill said. “But not passing the legislation would be a setback.”
In the meantime, the state continues to double down on the sector.
Driverless car initiatives are already included in the Nevada Department of Transportation’s new One Nevada Transportation Plan. The plan maps out the state’s transportation goals for the next 20 years, particularly as it relates to moving people and commerce more efficiently and safely.
“NDOT is right now engaged in public and private sector pilot programs to research transportation technologies, such as a University of Nevada, Reno initiative to further research and develop intersection Lidar sensors that allow connected vehicles to scan information from nearby non-connected vehicles to enhance intersection safety and mobility for all,” said Meg Ragonese, NDOT spokeswoman. “This technology could have traffic safety benefits for all, including the potential to detect and alert or stop drivers for others crossing in intersections.”
Others see self-driving technology as a way to supplement other industries. The Nevada Trucking Association, for example, has come out in support of the autonomous vehicle legislation.
The association has lobbied to make sure that the technology is made available not just to big firms in the state but smaller companies as well. The group is also working to ensure that smaller operations or drivers are not priced out from using the technology by high insurance.
The reason for the support lies in safety and quality-of-life improvements for drivers, said Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association.
Driving an 80,000-pound vehicle can be tough and stressful, especially when dealing with traffic, Enos said. Driverless technology can help address fatigue, which improves safety as well, Enos said.
Enos downplayed concerns about computers replacing truck drivers. Instead, he compared truckers of the future to airline pilots, who normally oversee a vehicle that spends a lot of its time in autopilot.
“When you’re moving tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in freight, the people that own that freight don’t want to send it down the road without a person there,” Enos said. “I see the job changing and being a little different than it is today.”
Breslow of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry looks even further ahead. He predicts that adoption of driverless technology will change transportation patterns, reduce the need for parking spaces and even make the three-car garage a thing of the past.
Older generations might want to hold on to the old transportation mindset but younger generations used to the trappings of technology such as texting and watching media on the go will be quicker to adapt, Breslow said.
“Families may continue to own a car for long trips but let’s face it, a car usually sits parked for 23 hours a day,” Breslow said. “In the future, instead of owning a car, there will be so many fleets of self-driving vehicles that you can just tap and summon a car when you want to go anywhere.”
Before that future becomes reality, many questions still need to be answered, including concerns about safety.
Uber and Tesla, for example, have experienced serious accidents involving their self-driving technology.
Hacking is another big issue. In 2015, hackers were able to remotely “kill” an internet-connected Jeep on the highway as part of a test. Full-fledged self-driving cars will leave even more control to computers than a regular car does.
“I could see there being some circumstances where Nevada could take a leadership position in (autonomous vehicle technology),” Assemblywoman Spiegel said. “But I am concerned about the overall safety of autonomous vehicles and whether or not the technology has progressed to the point where we can feel comfortable as a state going to this next step."