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8:26 PM Sun, Nov. 18th

Governor talks new, stricter rules for driverless vehicles

Governor Doug Ducey talks about the ramification of the driverless cars behind him on the truck bed. (Courtesy)

Courtesy

Governor Doug Ducey talks about the ramification of the driverless cars behind him on the truck bed. (Courtesy)

PHOENIX — With hundreds of them already on Arizona roads, Gov. Doug Ducey is laying out some new — and stricter — rules for autonomous vehicles.

In an extensive executive order Thursday, the governor is now requiring that any company wanting to operate driverless vehicles to comply with standards adopted last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That mandate is necessary as those standards are only voluntary.

But the order also contains some new safety requirements.

Most notable is that they be programmed to go into a “minimal risk condition’’ if there is a problem with the programming or even if the vehicle encounters something that it does not understand. In essence, that could mean pulling over to the side of the road and, if necessary, shutting down.

But there also are requirements that vehicles understand some of the same thing expected of human operators, like pulling over to the side when an emergency vehicle is approaching. And there even is language to spell out not only that these vehicles have to comply with all traffic laws but that the operator can be cited — even if the operator turns out to be the corporation that built it and there’s no one actually behind the wheel.

The governor issued his first executive order in 2015 allowing would-be designers of autonomous vehicles to begin testing them on Arizona roads with minimal state oversight and regulation.

That policy paid off the next year as Uber moved some of its test vehicles here from California. That came after Uber rejected the demand of California transportation officials that they be specially licensed and registered as test vehicles.

Even as that was happening, Ducey brushed aside questions about the need for Arizona to even adopt special rules for their operation.

Kirk Adams, the governor’s chief of staff, said the state is now ready for more specific regulations.

“Back in 2015 there were really only one or two companies that were really active in this state in some kind of large way,’’ he said. Now, Adams said, the state is getting inquiries from multiple corporations interested in trying out their technology on Arizona roads.

“We want to make sure that whoever is testing in Arizona is doing so at the most rigorous safety standards,’’ he said.

It starts with those NHTSA guidelines. These cover things like the ability of a vehicle to detect objects and respond as well has having crash-avoidance capability.

Ducey’s order says those who want to operate autonomous vehicles in Arizona from this point forward must be in compliance with those voluntary standards.

“We don’t want Joe’s Driverless Car Company to be putting some jalopy with bad technology on the road that doesn’t fit the federal standards,’’ said gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato. He said the NHTSA standards set the baseline for the vehicles and the technology.

“And we as a state will regulate the roads and the public safety,’’ Scarpinato said.

That gets to some of the details in the executive order beyond the requirement for NHTSA compliance, the things within Arizona’s control. And that includes interactions between driverless vehicles and police.

Adams said Chandler police are working with Waymo to hammer out some of the protocols. That includes the vehicle going into a “safe state’’ as necessary. “In order for an autonomous vehicle to be able to stay and remain in safe state they must be able to respond to emergency vehicles in a manner consistent with state law,’’ he explained.

So, for example, that means pulling over to the right side of the road safely when a fire engine is approaching and proceeding only when safe.

It also means complying with other state laws that govern drivers and driving — and programmed to pull over and stay over when a police vehicle comes up behind it to get it to stop.

That goes to another part of the order which spells out that when traffic laws are broken “the person testing or operating the fully autonomous vehicle may be issued a traffic citation.’’

Adams said that’s not as complicated as it sounds, even if the police officer finds no one behind the wheel — or no one in the car at all.

It turns out that long-standing state law defines a “person’’ to include not just living, breathing beings but, when referring to violations of the law, includes corporations, partnerships “or any association of persons.’’

“So in this case, Company X is operating an autonomous vehicle and they roll through a stop sign,’’ Adams said.

“A police officer pulls them over, issues a citation,’’ he said. “That citation is liable to the corporation or the owner of the vehicle.’’

As to actually getting the ticket to a human to pay it, Scarpinato said the executive order proposes to have police be trained what to do in those circumstances.