Tech-Law Clinic Students Help Design Autonomous Vehicle Policy

As autonomous vehicle (A/V) technology rapidly advances, legislators across the country are struggling to identify and implement appropriate public policies.

Students in the Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic (Tech-Law Clinic) offered support by analyzing legislation from 29 states, compiling that information into presentations and sharing those findings with the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC), which coordinates the state’s A/V policy-making activities. 

“The creation of public policy can move swiftly in surprising ways,” said Bill Covington, director of the Tech-Law Clinic and professor of law. “What can appear in the classroom to be a minor issue may suddenly become a cornerstone concern. Being involved in on the ground policy-making teaches students the vital importance of thorough preparation.”

The Tech-Law Clinic works at the intersection of public policy and technology. Students have the opportunity to write laws, compose policy papers, meet with stakeholders and provide legislative testimony.

The Washington State Legislature has tasked the WSTC with coordinating this state’s A/V policy making activities. Two student lead teams spent 90 minutes presenting to lawmakers and answering questions.

Alex Palumbo, a 3L student, spearheaded an effort in which UW Law students identified states with light-touch regulation, such as Arizona and Florida, and those with a more detail-oriented focus, such as California and New York.

They presented information on the importance of clearly defining an autonomous vehicle, describing driver and vehicle certification processes, identifying ideal testing locales and crafting privacy/data security protections. WSTC commissioners questioned the students on issues such as federal-state-local relations, liability and infrastructure needs.

Palumbo’s team recently presented to the full A/V policy executive committee.

Simone Montez and Drew Wilder, both masters of jurisprudence students, are focused on autonomous commercial vehicles (AC/Vs).

This summer, these students made a separate presentation focusing on the need to speedily develop an AC/V testing policy. The presenters pointed out that AC/Vs are likely to be on the road before non-commercial A/Vs. Montez and Wilder laid out a detailed plan focused on testing procedures, identifying best locations, a registration process, licensing requirements and data protection.

“The Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic has afforded us the unique opportunity to research, develop, present and provide expertise to government officials and transportation professionals on autonomous commercial vehicles, autonomous technology and the law,” Montez said.

The Tech-Law Clinic will work closely with the WSTC this fall to develop policies on liability, infrastructure, privacy and licensing.

SHB 2970

Students were instrumental in the successful passage of Washington House Bill 2970, which set up a working group to develop policy recommendations that address the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on public roadways in the state.

“These experiences have resulted in us representing the law school as active members on subcommittees supporting the AV Executive Working Group tasked by SHB 2970 to develop the 2019 action plan,” Montez said.

“We have had a great experience in our course work study at the law school, and are excited that through the clinic we have the opportunity to participate in the legislative process for developing policy that will impact the state of Washington,” she said.

The Washington State Transportation Commission is tasked with organizing the working group made up of five subcommittees: licensing, infrastructure, liability, safety and system technology/data security.

The Tech-Law Clinic will consult with the subcommittees as researchers and advisors tasked with providing appropriate background information and discharging assigned work. Students working on this project will learn the basics of A/V technology, review A/V legislation from various states and divide into small groups each focusing on one of the 5 topic areas being explored by the subcommittees. They will thoroughly vet the selected topic through research and meeting with stakeholders, attend subcommittee meetings and compose and advocate on behalf of a policy proposal or legislation.