Tennessee Needs to Clear Path for Driverless Cars

Motor vehicle crashes killed over 35,000 Americans in 2015, and almost 1,000 of them were Tennesseans. 94 percent of these accidents are due to human error - including distraction, drowsiness, or drunken driving. Worst of all, these numbers are going up, not down.

That staggering death toll led the Tennessee legislature to pass one of America’s most comprehensive autonomous vehicle laws in May, becoming one of a few states to allow on-road testing. This is good news, but unfortunately, the law still keeps some innovators sidelined.

Tennessee legislators deserve credit for taking action. One study has shown that widespread adoption of autonomous vehicle technology would prevent about 28 percent of motor vehicle accidents and save roughly 9,900 lives each year.

Recently, however, nearly identical legislation passed in Georgia, with one key difference: Georgia created an environment that will encourage innovation on a much wider scale, possibly allowing for quicker implementation of driverless cars and more lives saved.

On the upside, Tennessee’s Safe Automated Vehicle (SAVe) Act - which updates the existing motor vehicle code to prepare and promote driverless vehicles - does several good things. 

It stakes out a clear position embracing driverless technology with limited regulation. Unlike laws in states like California, it allows for some permissionless innovation - the idea that a government should not simply assume the worst-case scenario with a new technology while ignoring potentially life-changing (or life-saving) benefits. 

Additionally, Tennessee’s law is comprehensive and lets innovators know what they can expect from the state government. It provides a clear framework for autonomous vehicle innovators operating and testing on public roads. In doing so, the legislation removes some of the legal uncertainty while still largely allowing the technology to develop organically.

Unfortunately, Tennessee’s law also prohibits some of the leading innovators from testing autonomous vehicles on public roadways by limiting participation in autonomous vehicle testing to existing auto manufacturers. As a result, Tennessee has excluded Uber, Google-affiliated Waymo, and independent research by universities. 

In essence, Tennessee is telling innovators that unless you are an old fashioned car maker, you should find something else to create. With more states starting to allow autonomous vehicles, this may push cutting-edge companies and entrepreneurs to look elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress is considering legislation that would preempt much of the country’s state laws on this front to avoid an unnecessary patchwork of conflicting regulations.

If Tennessee truly hopes to promote such technology, it should consider opening up opportunities for tech innovators and its universities rather than just traditional auto-manufacturers. Every day matters with so many lives at stake.