New Jersey’s Driverless Car Bill: One Step Forward, Three Steps Back


Yesterday, the New Jersey Senate Transportation Committee in a unanimous vote reported S734, a bill that would recognize the legality of autonomous vehicle testing and operations in New Jersey. It appears to be largely based on a 2011 Nevada bill that later became law. While we should appreciate bill sponsor Sen. Tom Kean, Jr.’s intent to promote automated vehicle development in New Jersey, it contains a number of problems, as introduced.

First, let’s examine the definitions contained in the bill:

“Artificial intelligence” means the use of computers and related equipment to enable a machine to duplicate or mimic the behavior of human beings.

“Autonomous mode” means the operation of the autonomous vehicle without the active control of a human being.

 “Autonomous vehicle” means a motor vehicle that uses artificial intelligence, sensors, global positioning system coordinates, or any other technology to carry out the mechanical operations of driving without the active control and continuous monitoring of a human operator.

“Sensors” include, without limitation, cameras, lasers, and radar.

These definitions are simultaneously too specific and too vague. To describe automated operation and automated vehicles, Kean could have used:

“Automated operation” means computer direction of a vehicle’s steering, braking, and accelerating without real-time human input.

“Automated vehicle” means a motor vehicle capable of automated operation.

Those are the simple recommendations from University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith, a leading expert on the public policy implications of self-driving cars. There is no compelling reason for the statute to define specifically which technologies may be used. Bloated definitions can conflict with definitions contained in other statutes, regulations, and private standards and leave other technologies subject to arbitrary categorization.

Adopting a common terminology would be ideal; short of that, keeping definitions free from examples is the next best route. It is worth noting that Nevada in 2013 repealed the definitions of “artificial intelligence” and “sensors.” It also amended its definitions of “autonomous technology” and “autonomous vehicle” to be both simple and to exclude other forms of advanced driver assistance systems that should not fall under any definition of “autonomous.”

Second, let’s examine the driver license endorsement section contained in the bill:

a. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission shall establish a driver’s license endorsement for the operation of autonomous vehicles on the highways, roads, and streets of this State. A person shall not operate an autonomous vehicle in autonomous mode unless that person has obtained an endorsement on that person’s driver’s license to operate an autonomous vehicle.

b. An endorsement to a driver’s license allowing a person to operate an autonomous vehicle shall not require that a person actively drive the autonomous vehicle.

Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan do not require that an autonomous vehicle operator obtain a special endorsement for test operations. The District of Columbia statute has been interpreted to require a special endorsement for test operators. If these rules stand, it is highly unlikely any developer will be testing their automated vehicles in D.C. If New Jersey wishes to see testing on its public roads, Section 2 should be removed before final passage.

Third, let’s examine the section that punts most of the heavy lifting to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, which is instructed to devise a regulatory framework that includes:

a. Requirements an autonomous vehicle must meet before it may be operated on any highway, road, or street within this State;

b. Requirements for proof of insurance as required by P.L.1972, c.197 (C.39:6B-1) to test or operate an autonomous vehicle on any highway, road, or street within this State, in consultation with the Commissioner of Banking and Insurance, pursuant to section 2 of P.L.1972, c.200 (C.39:3-29.1);

c. Requirements for the registration of the autonomous vehicle, pursuant to R.S.39:3-4;

d. Minimum safety standards for autonomous vehicles and their operation;

e. Requirements for testing autonomous vehicles;

f. Restrictions for testing autonomous vehicles in specified geographic areas; and

g. Any other requirements the chief administrator determines to be necessary.

Section 3 leaves way too much open for regulatory interpretation. It is also worth noting that third-party modification liability issues are not addressed, but they could be because that would presumably be under the (3)(g) catch-all of “[a]ny other requirements the chief administrator determines necessary.” Or perhaps (3)(d)? Given that New Jersey is widely recognized as suffering from one of the worst regulatory climates in the nation, deferring so much to the bureaucracy is troubling, to say the least.

Again, the Senate Transportation Committee’s desire to promote the future of automobility should be commended. However, unless significant changes are made, this bill likely does more harm than good.

For more on automated vehicle regulation and what sort of policies should be avoided, see my April 2014 whitepaper, “Self-Driving Regulation.” Also, see a video of my recent presentation on automated vehicle regulation at the Cato Institute.