Can decades-old laws keep up with smart technology?

State-level legislative debates related to electric and autonomous vehicles are just the latest example of how rapidly changing technologies will challenge the nation's regulatory framework.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Two separate stories caught my eye this week, perhaps because so many of my friends have teenagers who have just earned their driver's license permits. The focus of these two pieces is different, but they point to the same gnawing question: can laws or regulatory structures that have been on the books for dozens of years accommodate emerging technologies designed to create smarter cities and smarter transportation systems?

"Do You Need a License to Drive a Driverless Car?" asks an article published earlier this week in Txchnologist, which is a publication put about by GE. The story focuses on a situation in Nevada, where Google is lobbying for changes to the driver's licensing laws to create a specific designation for its "autonomous vehicles." In other words, cars that can drive themselves. In Nevade, there are two different things being considered: legislation that would allow these things on public roads and laws that would exempt "drivers" of driverless cars from the distract driving laws that prohibit texting in many states.

The New York Times has also explored this issue. The article by Times technology correspondent John Markoff quotes Ryan Calo, a legal scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School:

"In some respects, this is a great template and a great model. It recognizes a need to create a process to test these vehicles and set aside an area of Nevada where testing can take place."

Both articles focus on the fact that technologies such as this could require the development of new laws, particular on the roads, where many laws were drawn up in the age of horse-drawn carriages.

I also want to draw your attention to another article, "States Considering Electric Car Fees for Road Upkeep," that explores a separate but equally compelling issue -- how to ensure that funds are available for road upkeep as people switch to alternative vehicle technologies, including plug-in electric. Right now, as you know, most states rely on gas tax revenues for this funding. But if people aren't buying gas, what to do?

That's why states including Washington, Oregon, Texas, Mississippi and now Utah are exploring measures to charge annual fees for electric vehicles. As the article reports, Washington wants to charge an annual fee of $100 per year for electric car owners.

The lead sponsor of that law, Democratic state senator Mary Margaret Haugen, told the Associated Press:

"Electric vehicles put just as much wear and tear on our roads as gas vehicles. This simply ensures that they contribute their fair share to the upkeep of our roads."

Elsewhere, a mileage fee program that was being proposed in Texas is stuck in neutral, while a fee that was proposed in Mississippi was squelched before it got out of committee.

Could stuff like this become a roadblock in the adoption of new technologies, especially electric vehicles and other smart transportation technologies? I sure hope not, but it will doubtless make for plenty of legislative debate, especially at the state level.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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