Google Now Opposes State Automated Vehicle Legislation?

Back in 2012, I warned that California’s bill (now law) that would explicitly recognize the legality of automated vehicles and order state regulators to develop a detailed safety framework would tie the hands of innovators. In those days, Google was the chief proponent of such legislation, with California Gov. Jerry Brown signing the bill into law (sponsored by now-Secretary of State Alex Padilla) at Google’s headquarters, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin looking on.

That 2012 law spawned a series of chaotic regulatory actions at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which has still failed to implement the required licensing and operations regulations and which also imposed regulations that forced Google to dial back its efforts to produce and test a fully automated vehicle on public roads. Ironically, these now-forbidden operations were likely completely legal before California enacted its autonomous vehicle law in 2012.

Fortunately, Google appears to have learned from its mistakes and is now opposing a similar piece of legislation in Texas. The technology giant isn’t explaining its about-face in the Longhorn State, but the automakers’ chief lobby, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was more candid:

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

“We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

Gage said many of his group’s members are testing autonomous vehicle technology, but he could not say whether any are doing so on Texas roads or highways. Such testing would likely be legal here, as Texas law does not address self-driving vehicles, according to state officials. Google drove its self-driving car on Texas roads during a trip to Austin to promote the technology in 2013.

In my CEI report last year, “Self-Driving Regulation: Pro-Market Policies Key for Automated Vehicle Innovation,” I recommended that instead of passing detailed legislation that will likely restrict advanced operations of automated vehicles,

states should pass legislation recognizing legality and issue regulations that minimize references to specific technologies and functions. At the very least, states should adopt key legislative and regulatory principles that aim to do as little regulating as possible for the purpose of fostering rapid development and rollout of highly automated vehicles.

This is another way of saying states should focus on cleaning up their antiquated motor vehicle codes and providing clarity to developers, insurers, and law enforcement without imposing specific burdens or prohibitions on the use of automated vehicles. Google and the auto industry appear to be waking up to the threat of well-intentioned but ultimately harmful regulation. Here’s to hoping policy makers will soon do the same.