Utah soon could be first state to fully legalize self-driving cars on its roads


FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2016, file photo, the Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event in San Francisco. Uber is settling a lawsuit filed by Google’s autonomous car unit alleging that the ride-hailing service ripped off self-driving car technology. Both sides in the case issued statements confirming the settlement Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, morning in the midst of a federal court trial in the case. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Utah could become the first state to fully legalize driverless, autonomous vehicles anywhere on the state’s roads under a bill that cleared its first hurdle Wednesday. And state officials say the good news is those cars will never drive while drunken, distracted or talking on cellphones.

The House Transportation Committee voted 10-0 to endorse HB371, and sent it to the full House.

Its sponsor, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said it could attract more of the emerging autonomous vehicle industry to the state. “There is a great opportunity because of Utah’s tech center … to really take a lead in this area.”

He said Arizona currently allows autonomous vehicles by executive order from its governor, and Michigan encourages testing of them. But Utah would be the first to enact laws allowing them on all roads and adopting liability and insurance rules.

Spendlove says action is needed because “we’ve got autonomous technology that is now being implemented in cars coming out on the road, and we have testing going on throughout the country.”

His bill would create somewhat different rules, liability and insurance requirements for five different categories of autonomous vehicles.

“A car that has cruise control is a Level 1” because that category includes cars that may accelerate by themselves, he said.

“Most of the cars coming out right now are a level 2, with lane assist and smart braking,” he said. “In Level 3, the car does most of the work but you have to be actively engaged — like in a Tesla.”

A Level 4 car “can do everything — but you have to be available in an emergency. A Level 5 car does everything. You don’t need to be in the car,” and it could literally drive itself to a destination, Spendlove said.

Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said the bill could increase safety — in part because self-driving cars are never distracted, drunken or talking on cellphones.

“And it actually will stop at a traffic signal,” he said, noting that Toyota and Tokyo have been able to significantly reduce accidents with a system that recognizes stop signals and automatically stops when required.

Braceras adds that self-driving cars someday may allow roads to carry more traffic — because autonomous cars would be able to follow each other at shorter intervals instead of the longer distances needed now to allow for human error.

“Some states have been talking about autonomous lanes” to allow that, he said. “I think it will help mobility someday, but it will be a ways out.” But it could help roads handle the doubling of population expected in Utah in coming decades.

Spendlove says he expects continuing work on the legislation in coming years as technology and cars change. He said he may delay its effective date until mid-2019 to allow more work on it.