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State road rules: A troubling patchwork of regulations

August 28, 2019 | 4 min. read

By Charity Allen

Within the self-driving industry, we talk a lot about working together to enact clear and consistent rules for regulating autonomous vehicles. Without these rules, we’ll likely see a proliferation of individual state regulations—in fact, we already see that happening.

Currently, 29 states have passed some kind of regulation for self-driving cars, some more extensive than others. In California, regulations outline specific testing requirements and mandate that companies share certain metrics with the state, such as the number of disengagements while driving. In other states, like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, the regulations are less explicit, requiring less, if any, reporting on self-driving vehicle operations. To ensure state governments consider how other states have already regulated this area, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently encouraged states to provide a consistent regulatory and operational environment, stating that “conflicting State and local laws and regulations surrounding automated vehicles create confusion, introduce barriers, and present compliance challenges.”

While this is an important issue, there’s another problem that’s just as troubling—one that no one is publicly addressing: the existing patchwork of varying road rules in different states, which will create a massive challenge for companies rolling out self-driving technology to all 50 states and thousands of cities. Every state puts road rules in place with the same intention, to keep people safe, but their laws vary in large and small ways. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Bike lanes: States allow vehicles to enter bike lanes when making right turns at different times.

  • In California, when making a right turn, a driver should drive the motor vehicle into the bike lane within 200 feet of the intersection and make the turn as close as practicably possible to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. The vehicle should merge into the bike lane prior to stopping at a red light.

  • In Pennsylvania, although turns should still be made as close as possible to the curb or edge of the road like in California, the State explicitly requires that a driver always give the right of way to a cyclist. More specifically, a driver making a turn cannot interfere with a cyclist that is going straight. Vehicles should wait for a cyclist approaching from behind to go straight on the right side of the car, before moving into the bike lane to make the right turn. Therefore, the car may not merge into the bike lane prior to stopping at a red light.

School buses: There are small but important differences related to when drivers should stop for school buses, per jurisdiction.

  • In California, drivers must stop for any school bus that is in the same roadway, but are not required to stop for any school bus on a cross-road, across a median from our vehicle, or on a multilane street.

  • In Pennsylvania, the road rules are further reaching than in California. Drivers must also stop if a school bus is on another roadway at an intersection, as well as on multilane highways.

How should we expect human drivers account for these differences? They rarely look up the nuances of the rules. (When was the last time you looked at the DMV handbook for the state where you were vacationing?) Humans intuitively assume that if they drive safely enough for one state, it’s safe enough in all states. In most cases, human drivers take the reasonable risk that if they are following general traffic rules they won’t get ticketed for local offenses or technicalities. Autonomous vehicles do not have that luxury.

Aurora will always make sure that our vehicles operate safely regardless of the jurisdiction, but we also must ensure that our vehicles are capable of complying with all state and local traffic laws. Right now, self-driving technology is being tested in limited jurisdictions (our cars are on the roads in California and Pennsylvania), so programming individual state road rules into our system is challenging, but not crippling. But when we, and other self-driving companies, want to enter all 50 states and thousands of cities, that task becomes much harder.

Right now, our mapping and regulatory teams work to understand the different state road rules and then we program our maps to account for these differences. But it’s not just interpreting the laws and programming our technology accordingly—it’s about finding the rules in the first place.

  • In Arizona, the traffic laws are outlined in Arizona Revised Statutes Title 28 “Transportation”, with the Arizona Driver License Manual providing a more accessible breakdown of the laws.

  • In California, Division 11 of the California Vehicle Code outlines the Rules of the Road, whereas the California Driver Handbook acts as a guide for drivers of expectations and responsibilities in the state.

  • In Pennsylvania, Chapter 33 of Title 75 “Vehicles” gives the Rules of the Road in General; whereas PennDOT drafted the Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual to be a general guide to the laws, rather than a substitute for the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code.

  • Additionally, cities may layer additional rules on top of these state rules. For example, in San Francisco, California, the city passed additional municipal code that governs traffic within the city limits, and issued a reference guide on parking legally.

It’s true that states and cities have reasons for some of the differing rules. However, self-driving technology can save even more lives if states and cities can come together and work with industry groups to agree on consistent standards.

Our goal is to bring awareness to the patchwork of road rules that already exist across the country. We have begun to work with federal and state regulators to brainstorm ways to bring the states and communities together to standardize the road rules. We encourage stakeholders to work together to develop model road rules that states and cities could enact to ensure that all drivers, whether human or autonomous, are subject to substantially similar rules wherever they are in the United States.

This effort is not about encouraging preemption by the federal government on either the state or city level — it’s about coordination, collaboration, and using the promise of self-driving as an opportunity to ensure laws are safe and practical.

Aurora is delivering the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly. We’re looking for talented people to join our team.

Charity Allen

Aurora’s Head Regulatory Counsel