Hands off the wheel? Inslee signs executive order to support safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicles

Self-driving cars may sound futuristic, but Washington state is leading the way right now on developing autonomous vehicles that are safe and could help save lives, reduce carbon emissions and create jobs.

Gov. Jay Inslee today signed an executive order to support safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The executive order establishes an interagency workgroup to work with local, regional and federal officials, stakeholders and industry groups, recommend changes or clarifications to state polices and rules about AVs, and examine other emerging automated transportation technology. The order also enables pilot programs for organizations developing AV equipment and technology.

The governor signed the executive order at Echodyne, a radar technology startup in Bellevue that is working to ensure AVs stay safe and affordable.

“Washington state is already a leader in autonomous vehicle technology. We are an early-adopter that welcomes innovation and the safe testing and operation of AVs,” Inslee said. “AVs could help save countless lives, reclaim time spent in traffic, improve mobility and be an important tool in our efforts to combat climate change.”

Inslee at the signing of his executive order to promote autonomous vehicle testing and technology (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

Safety of these vehicles is a top consideration for the governor and for the companies developing this technology.

“The governor’s executive order helps prepare us for the future by supporting the safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicle technology,” said Chief John Batiste of the Washington State Patrol.

“AVs could dramatically improve traffic safety by reducing highway fatalities,” added Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “Each year, 33,000 people die in traffic collisions in the United States, and 94 percent of those crashes are linked to human error.”

Inslee worked with Google executives to recruit their self-driving car program to Washington state in 2016. Over the past year, the program (now known as Waymo) has successfully tested AVs throughout the City of Kirkland without incident. Over twenty AV technology companies — both established companies and start-ups — have a presence in Washington state.

Earlier this year, Inslee test drove a semi-autonomous Tesla Model X. “This is the safest drive by a Washington state governor — and the cleanest!” he joked.

The opportunities surrounding AV technology come with a lot of questions, regulatory and otherwise. Inslee’s executive order aims to provide a vision and a framework for how Washington state can safely and effectively develop this burgeoning technology.

“This new executive order will continue a supportive climate in Washington state that cultivates and nurtures the safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicles,” said David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition of Safer Streets, a coalition of major AV technology firms including Ford, Waymo, Lyft, Uber and Volvo, and nonprofits including MADD, the United Spinal Association, Mobility4All and the National Federation of the Blind.

“Nearly half of Washington state’s carbon emissions are produced by cars and trucks. Autonomous electric vehicles will play an important role in our efforts to clean our air and combat climate change by making our transportation system more efficient and reducing congestion,” said Vlad Gutman, Washington Director for Climate Solutions.

“We commend Governor Inslee’s approach to the safe deployment of autonomous vehicle technology in the State of Washington and his recognition of the significant safety and mobility benefits that automated vehicles can provide,” said Harry Lightsey, Executive Director of Emerging Technologies Policy at General Motors.

“This executive order is another signal that Washington state welcomes innovation, and it demonstrates our continued leadership and support for companies that develop safe autonomous vehicle technology,” said Brian Bonlender, director of the state Department of Commerce.

The executive order can be found here.