Tennessee Tees Up Autonomous Vehicle Measure

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By Michaela Ross

Tennessee became the latest state to pass new legislation that would set parameters for autonomous vehicle testing and deployment, after lawmakers there sent a measure to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

The measure, which Haslam (R) is expected to sign, would clear the way for fully autonomous vehicles, or AVs, to be tested and deployed on the state’s public roads.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws, executive orders or regulations controlling autonomous vehicles on their roads, according to Bloomberg Law data. Tennessee’s legislation would clarify self-driving technology statutes the state has already enacted to allow fully autonomous vehicles, otherwise classified as level 5 autonomous vehicles, to operate on state roads without a licensed driver needed, according to House bill sponsor Rep. William Lamberth (R).

“I have number of constituents of mine that are elderly or disabled, or aren’t able to get a license for a number of reasons, and this is a real game changer for them,” Lamberth told Bloomberg BNA.

Legislators struck language from the original bill that would have barred tech companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google’s Waymo, which aren’t classified as motor vehicle manufacturers, from operating on the state’s public roads.

Some autonomous vehicle advocacy groups, including the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents those companies as well as automakers including Ford Motor Co. and Volvo AB, praised that change. But the same groups also criticized aspects of the bill. The coalition contends it is another in an array of state laws that have cropped up to fill the lack of national regulation or legislation for autonomous vehicles.

“We strongly encourage states not to create a patchwork of requirements that ultimately could hinder the testing and deployment of these vehicles, and we look forward to working with Tennessee policymakers in pursuit of the right policy solutions,” David Strickland, general counsel for the coaltion, told Bloomberg BNA in a statement.

Currently, states have a role in regulating drivers, insurance and licensing, whereas the federal government overseas vehicle safety. The emergence of driverless vehicles has blurred those lines and frustrated tech and auto companies alike.

“Driving is inherently an interstate activity, and if Congress does not enact autonomous vehicle legislation that preempts our divergent state autonomous vehicle laws, this patchwork remains as a roadblock to the widespread deployment of this life-saving technology,” Elliot Katz, co-chair at DLA Piper’s connected and self-driving car practice, told Bloomberg BNA.

Still, bill sponsor Sen. Jon Lundberg (R) said the aim was to attract the benefits of the autonomous vehicle industry to the state’s economy and citizens as quickly as possible, with the understanding that changing technology will necessitate future legislative updates.

“My expectation is that it will be changed next year or the year after,” Lundberg told Bloomberg BNA. “Because technology in the marketplace will dictate what needs to happen.”

Haslam’s office did not immediately respond to a Bloomberg BNA request for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross at mross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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