Capital Beat: Roadmap unclear for driverless cars after Sununu veto

Monitor staff
Published: 7/7/2018 10:35:41 PM

It was supposed to be the cap to three years of effort, and the beginning of new opportunities. But after months of tweaks in the House Transportation Committee, a bill to create a license system to test driverless cars on New Hampshire’s roads was hit by a veto this week – Gov. Chris Sununu’s seventh in office.

In a letter explaining the decision Monday, Sununu centered his opposition around safety concerns. The testing license would only cover “Level 5” autonomous vehicles – the highest of five – leaving open lower levels. The license requirement would apply only to the testing of cars that can fully drive themselves, and not partially autonomous cars like Teslas, some of whose models allow drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel in autopilot mode.

That wasn’t good enough, the governor said.

“This legislation may attract less responsible actors to New Hampshire to develop autonomous vehicle technology and could result in a more dangerous testing environment on New Hampshire’s roads,” the governor wrote, citing recent fatalities caused by malfunctioning technology.

But there’s one potential problem. New Hampshire appears to have no laws on the books dealing with autonomous vehicles, according to the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles.

“To the best of our knowledge, there’s nothing right now that addresses what are specifically referred to as autonomous vehicles,” said Larry Crowe, a DMV spokesman.

And absent a bill to take on the operation of autonomous vehicles in the state, one lawmaker is warning that car manufacturers can already send their cars onto the roads. Now, some may move in and take advantage of the statutory silence – particularly the less responsible ones.

“They’re legal now,” said Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, of the autonomous cars. “If the veto is sustained, Uber can deploy here, right away.”

To Smith, the prime sponsor of the bill, House Bill 314 was designed specifically to provide oversight, not evade it. With development dating back to 2015, the bill was drawn from other states’ statutes and from guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Under the bill, to qualify for a license for “Level 5” autonomy, a manufacturer would need to meet a range of qualifications, including documentation of a $10 million minimum insurance plan and proof that each specific car had been tested before in a closed test environment.

That, Smith says, was important – it would weed out those companies with smaller budgets than Google and Waymo, who couldn’t jump through all the hoops. Without the framework, he argues, the state is putting out a welcome mat.

“The situation is: If you are a fringe manufacturer of one of these things that can’t afford the liability insurance and can’t deal with the regulation, if we sustain this veto, you come to New Hampshire, because we literally have no rules without that bill,” he said.

HB 314 would have also mandated that licensed manufacturers develop a “law enforcement interaction plan” that would instruct different state and local police departments on how to deal with a vehicle that violates traffic laws; without that, Smith says, the law is silent.

A representative for New Hampshire State Police was not available Friday to detail existing protocols or laws in place to deal with the cars.

As for a federal approach, presently, there don’t seem to be U.S. laws to standardize testing approaches across the country.

“We spent some time digging and going through to see if there’s anything obvious to address it but if there’s a trump card in terms of federal rule or law taking over, I’m not aware of it,” Crowe, of the DMV, said.

New Hampshire is one of 14 states that don’t have either executive orders or laws dealing with autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Twenty-nine states, including Maine and Vermont, have passed such laws; 10, including Massachusetts, have executive orders (three states have both).

In making his veto, however, Sununu was clear he wasn’t closing a door on the concept. Rather, he embraced it.

“I hope that the House and Senate will work together next session to pass a bill that will encourage development of autonomous vehicle technologies while ensuring the safety of our citizens,” the governor wrote in his letter. “By only addressing level 5 technology, House Bill 314 failed on both accounts.”

Still, for Smith, the veto comes down to a lack of understanding.

“Clearly he didn’t understand the issue and it’s unfortunate he didn’t talk to any of the people who worked on the bill for three years,” Smith said.

The governor’s office did not return a request for comment Friday.

It’s unclear exactly how much of a problem this might actually pose. New Hampshire’s highways aren’t exactly clogged with robotic cars these days – though Smith believes many companies had held off from testing in recent months while they watched the progress of the bill.

For now at least, keep a careful eye on the road.

An end in sight

Senate President Chuck Morse’s desk has seen plenty of bills in recent weeks. The default last stop for enrolled legislation before it heads off to the governor’s desk, Morse’s desk has functioned as a de facto gateway since the Legislative session convened.

And it’s held a lot of them.

But on Tuesday, hours before the holiday, Gov. Chris Sununu took a significant chunk out of the list, announcing 70 bills signed into law. Here are a few that slipped under the radar:

HB 1809 – the balanced billing law:This will prevent the practice of balance billing, also known as “surprise billing,” where insured patients visiting in-network hospitals are unknowingly served by out-of-network medical professionals and given a bill for the difference by the hospital after the visit – often to the tune of thousands of dollars. The law would prohibit it, and allow the insurance commissioner to adjudicate disputes between insurers and hospitals about unpaid bills, leaving the consumer out of it.

HB 561 – the double-dipping law:This will tighten the regulatory screws on a long-controversial practice: the ability for public sector retirees to rejoin the workforce and accrue additional retirement benefits. The new law, which takes effect in January, will prevent retirees from “double-dipping” if they work above a threshold; if they work more than 1,352 hours a year – 26 hours a week on average – they automatically forfeit their previous benefits for at least a year. But while the law would represent a major change for future generations, it would grandfather those retirees presently working, allowing them to work under a more generous hourly cap and keep benefits.

SB 318 – the teen work hours law:This will raise the weekly maximum work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, both during school weeks and on vacation, and pare back the authority for the Department of Labor to conduct site checks by investigators on businesses. It took significant heat from Democrats in the Senate, who dubbed it the “child labor law,” but supporters say it provides more opportunities for teens looking to save for college, and note that all employment conditions will still require parental approval.

SB 71 – the alimony law:This will reform the legal guidelines for alimony, and set a default standard for determining how much a lower-income parent should pay: 30 percent of the difference of each parent’s gross incomes. While the law allows a court to deviate and set the mandatory payments differently, supporters of the bill said that having a percentage-based formula will allow for certainty and head off litigation. With a fallback formula known ahead of time, more couples will choose to settle rather than duke it out, some divorce attorneys testified. Others criticized the guidelines as being overly elaborate, and took issue with the requirement that the payments only last for 50 percent of the duration of marriage.

As for the rest of the bills, the pile has swiftly dwindled. There are now just 10 pieces of legislation that have yet to pass to the governor, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Among them: Senate Bill 541, a bill allowing firefighters to collect disability benefits for cancer; Senate Bill 309, tightening regulations over per fluorochemicals in drinking water; and House Bill 1264, the voter residency bill awaiting a Supreme Court review.

That last one will have to sit a little bit longer.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at or on Twitter @edewittNH.)

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