States across the country are seeking ways to create high-paying technology jobs within their borders. Increasingly, they're focused on doing that by permitting testing of self-driving cars on their roads. But those enthusiastic efforts can often bring unexpected complications.

Case in point: Rhode Island is the latest state to examine legislation in its state senate that would seemingly encourage autonomous testing and driving on its roads. Currently, only four states have passed legislation that expressly authorizes testing – California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan – and the Rhode Island bill's sponsor tells the Providence Journal he hopes being the first Northeast state to adopt a pro-autonomous measure would make it a "job creator."

In doing so, Rhode Island appears to be making the same mistakes that are jeopardizing autonomous testing in California right now.

"If this approach was around during the time of the Wright Brothers, we'd never have gotten off the ground." – Cory Booker


The proposed Rhode Island legislation would mandate that a person would need to possess a valid driver's license to operate a vehicle in autonomous mode. That's a huge sticking point in California right now. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has issued a preliminary ruling that would require the same. Manufacturers like Google have protested, because requiring a licensed human driver would prohibit the very people self-driving cars can help most – namely the elderly, blind, and disabled – from benefiting from the technology.

Further, the Rhode Island bill stipulates that the person "who causes the vehicle to engage, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the vehicle while the vehicle is operating" would be considered the driver. This directly contradicts recent federal guidance, in which officials told autonomous-car companies that their self-driving systems could be considered the drivers of the car.

Federal officials in the Department of Transportation are rushing to overhaul standards and offer guidance on self-driving technology. In January, Secretary Anthony Foxx said that revamping would be complete within six months, a breakneck pace for anyone who knows how quickly the government usually moves.

California's current struggles should serve as a warning sign ... that the best of intentions can lead to unintentional detours.


They're doing that to avoid the creation of a patchwork of state-by-state laws that would force self-driving car manufacturers to comply with 50 different sets of rules and regulations that could, collectively, make it difficult or impossible for autonomobiles to deploy.

At a Congressional hearing earlier this month on hindrances to self-driving cars, Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) directly addressed the mess such an approach could produce. "If this approach was around during the time of the Wright Brothers, we'd never have gotten off the ground," he said.

Rhode Island's legislation is closely modeled on similar proposed legislation in New York. Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Minnesota have also recently introduced bills that address autonomous operations. Sixteen states introduced legislation related to autonomous vehicles in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Google was an early proponent of a law that mandated California adopt standards for self-driving car operations. The company quickly learned that was a mistake, not only because the DMV has written preliminary rules that would prevent removal of steering wheels and other human controls engineers want to jettison from cars, but because laws that vary from state to state create a monstrous headache.

California's current struggles should serve as a warning sign to Rhode Island and other states considering autonomous legislation that the best of intentions can lead to unintentional detours.

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