On June 17, the State of Nevada introduced legislation (AB 511) that allows autonomous vehicles on its highways, provided they comply specific regulations. The regulations, testing, and a driver’s license endorsement remain to be developed by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are expected to save thousands of lives lost in traffic accidents each year. The vehicles are developed to have 360-degrees perception, stay focused on the road, and react faster to road conditions than humans. Drunk driving, for example, will no longer be an issue. They may also reduce traffic jams by allowing cars to safely keep a smaller distance, which should mitigate pollution from car idling. While the legal recognition of this technology in Nevada is great progress, the legislation was rushed and failed to consider government surveillance enabled by autonomous vehicles.
AB 511 defines an “autonomous vehicle” to mean “a motor vehicle that uses artificial intelligence, sensors and global positioning system coordinates to drive itself without the active intervention of a human operator.” It defines “artificial intelligence” to mean “the use of computers and related equipment to enable a machine to duplicate or mimic the behavior of human beings.” This definition, as discussed in Ryan Calo’s blog, fails to acknowledge the fact that certain vehicles already include “artificial intelligence” to various degrees. This legislation may, for example, unintentionally require special testing of self-parking cars that are already available for public consumption and are not commonly considered to be “autonomous vehicles.”
The Legislation also lacks analysis regarding collection of data from vehicles operated by computers. There is a clear advantage for a company that ultimately will provide these cars (whether it is Google or not) to collect data from the cars to advance the performance of the technology. There should be some clear directions as to how a company is to handle that data. It may, for example, be kept in a manner that does not reflect personal information about where any particular vehicle has been or is going. More importantly, there needs to be restrictions on the government’s ability to access that data. This is significant given that the government already tried to use the current technology in certain cars to obtain information for “law enforcement purposes” in a rather non-transparent manner. Restrictions on government surveillance are usually developed by case law. But courts have been slow to develop principles to address computers and new technology. Therefore, it may be wise to address these issues with legislation based on thorough input from engineers and researchers that can provide insight into the potential of this technology.
Obviously, these issues take a long time to consider and they should not get in the way of the development and use of this technology. However, because autonomous vehicles were not previously expressly prohibited in Nevada, they could probably have been used even before this legislation (though there is some debate about whether the lack of prohibition means that autonomous cars are legal). It is, however, clear that the Nevada Legislature dropped all practical considerations into the DMV’s lap, which definitely lacks the technical expertise and resources to consider these issues (if the California DMV’s workload is any indication, early this year, DMV’s staff estimated the process of printing new driver’s licenses to average about 8 months per license!). Given that this technology will likely not be available within the next year, the Nevada Legislature could have taken some time, working with experts (perhaps Google?), to consider these issues.