Eric Risberg / AP
Monday, Nov. 16, 2015 | 2 a.m.
In 2011, at the behest of Google, Nevada became the first state to legalize autonomous vehicle road-testing.
Seeing the potential economic benefits, several states followed, including California, Michigan and Florida. At least 15 more now are considering legislation related to the cars.
With more states embracing autonomous cars and the hype surrounding next-stage vehicles increasing exponentially, Nevada wants to protect its lead on autonomous testing.
“It has had tremendous economic impact,” David Goldwater, a former Google lobbyist, said of the 2011 law he ferried through the Legislature. “It put Nevada on the radar screen of a lot of tech companies from a policy standpoint and economic standpoint that we are a viable location.”
Google came to Nevada after it experienced regulatory issues in California, Goldwater said.
Since then, Nevada has issued licenses to four additional companies and is considering two more applications, said Jude Hurin, director of the Department of Motor Vehicles’ autonomous testing program. Under the program, manufacturers and software developers can submit applications with the DMV to do autonomous testing if vehicles already have driven at least 10,000 miles and meet additional conditions.
“It’s growing,” Hurin said. “There are still a lot of companies that are coming to Nevada.”
Road-testing permits must be renewed after one year and are issued conditionally. The DMV requires companies to do a road test with state officials and submit an overview of their technology.
The permits also often come with stipulations, such as keeping off the highway or not being able to drive in fog. Autonomous cars that are tested off of public roads in controlled environments, such as the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, do not require permits.
Nevada has environmental advantages for the road tests, including open space, limited traffic and accomodating regulators who want to attract business. California, although closer for many tech companies, by comparison is known for having a stricter regulatory structure.
Hurin cited regulation as the primary draw for German manufacturer Daimler AG, which owns U.S. heavy-duty truck giant Freightliner and tested a prototype of an autonomous 18-wheeler on the Hoover Dam in May.
“That’s why (they) came to us,” Hurin said. “They were having problems in Europe.”
But some experts warn against putting too much emphasis on legislation and regulations to attract autonomous car companies. Bryan Walker Smith, who led the automated driving law program at Stanford, said existing law often can be applied to autonomous vehicles, meaning new laws aren’t necessarily needed.
“It’s not clear passing a law has led to greater testing anywhere,” Smith said.
Several states, such as Texas, Arizona and Iowa, instead have shifted focus to using a combination of existing law, outreach and the promise of flexible partnerships to lure companies to test.
The Nevada law, Smith said, was in some ways a stepping stone for Google to test in California. After Nevada passed its autonomous testing law, California, where Google is headquartered, moved quickly to pass its own law.
Smith said Nevada’s early action nevertheless was essential, serving as a high-profile example of the state’s receptive regulatory regime and its willingness to act quickly to accommodate companies.
Nevada’s friendly attitude toward the autonomous vehicle industry continues today.
The state, for instance, is encouraging federal officials to standardize rules for autonomous vehicles on a national and international level. And the Governor’s Office of Economic Development is backing industry research. UNR recently submitted a proposal for state funding to allow an artificial intelligence and robotics professor to research autonomous guidance systems for vehicles. There also are efforts underway in Reno to open an autonomous vehicle startup as a subsidiary of the German company Autonomos GmbH.