Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order on Wednesday, directing the state to permit autonomous-car testing both with and without a driver at the wheel, starting within the next 60 days.
The executive order is only three pages, and thus, doesn't provide much in the way of regulation. It establishes a "work group" that will examine the government's role in autonomous-car development across a variety of mediums, including freight, passenger rail and aviation. This group will receive updates from pilot programs and suggest "changes or clarifications" to state policies to advance development further.
The requirements for the pilot programs themselves are pretty straightforward. Vehicles will still require a trained monitor or driver who must be able to take control of the car if necessary. Companies must prove their certifications to the Department of Licensing, and they must be able to prove "financial responsibility," but that's about it. One of the few real requirements is that any self-driving car must be capable of bringing itself to a stop in the event of a system failure.
Governor Inslee's executive order clearly shows his preference for autonomous driving, but he might be jumping the gun. At a press conference celebrating the executive order, Governor Inslee said, "We humans are really good at a lot of things, [but] driving cars isn't necessarily one of them compared to the automated processes that are digital and foolproof."
Foolproof? Hardly. Statistics from the California Department of Transportation's mandatory autonomous-vehicle reports show that while the number of "disengagement" events (where the vehicle cedes control back to a human) is shrinking, it's still far from perfect. In fact, the number of disengagements varies wildly from developer to developer.
Yesterday, I said Honda was with its autonomous cars, because it relieves some of the pressure from the public eye and allows the company to fine-tune its efforts. It's sort of the same situation here -- it'll be great to have these cars on the road in Washington, but immediately placing all your trust-eggs in that basket has the chance to backfire, which could set back autonomous-car development by months or years.