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A series of U.S. state laws could prevent Uber or Google from operating self-driving cars

As written, the laws restrict autonomous vehicle operation to automakers.

A Google/Waymo self-driving car Chesnot / Getty

A series of bills introduced in at least four U.S. states — Georgia, Maryland, Illinois and Tennessee — would restrict the deployment of autonomous car technology on public roads to automakers — that is, companies that make cars.

As written, the bills — modeled after the SAVE Act, Michigan’s pioneering self-driving car regulations — would only allow a network of self-driving cars to operate on public roads if the cars are owned by an automaker.

The draft bill being considered in Tennessee, for instance, says: “Only motor vehicle manufacturers are eligible to participate in a SAVE project, and each motor vehicle manufacturer is responsible for the safe operation of its participating fleet.”

This suggests companies like Uber or Alphabet — which owns Waymo, previously known as the Google car project — may not be able to roll out their own self-driving cars in these states. Both companies are developing self-driving car technology, but neither manufactures vehicles.

These bills mirror what was originally proposed in Michigan — home to the U.S. auto industry — where there are now comprehensive laws on the testing and deployment of self-driving cars. But when later passed, the Michigan law included new language that allows companies like Uber and Google to launch ride-hail networks of autonomous cars, as long as they either work with an automaker or get their prototype approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So far, the bills being proposed in these four states don’t include that language.

Who’s behind these restrictions?

According to an AP report, General Motors, the Detroit-based car company, urged lawmakers to propose these rules. Illinois state Rep. Mike Zalewski told the AP that he proposed the bill after speaking to GM. So did Maryland state Sen. William Ferguson.

GM lobbyist Harry Lightsey denied to the AP that lawmakers were proposing these restrictive laws at their request, but said the automaker supports them, because “public acceptance of the technology is going to be very critical.” GM did not immediately respond to Recode’s request for comment.

But David Strickland, the general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets — an organization representing Ford, Uber, Lyft and Volvo — and former head of NHTSA, voiced his opposition to these bills.

“It is our view that, if a state does choose to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to AVs, such action should be premised on removing impediments to the safe testing or deployment of such vehicles and preserving a pro-competitive and level playing field,” Strickland wrote. “We recommend that states concentrate on revising existing laws and regulations to comprehend autonomous vehicles.”

It’s not clear whether these rules will pass as-is or if pressure from companies like Waymo and Uber will lead to compromises.

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