Assembling the right public policy for driverless cars

Assembling the right public policy for driverless cars
: The first meeting of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Executive Committee on June 27 highlighted the broad impact that driverless cars will have when they appear in significant numbers. Photo: Phys.org

There may be as many components needed to form Washington’s public policy for driverless cars as the actual vehicles. It’s a challenge the Washington’s Autonomous Vehicle Executive Committee faces as it begins the first of many meetings with private and government stakeholders to create recommendations to the state legislature on how to integrate autonomous vehicles (AV). At the same time, industry members in the group say it’s vital the private sector’s voice be sufficiently heard throughout the process.

“We don’t want to create obstacles for this industry to grow,” Mike Ennis said. He is the director of government affairs on transportation for the Association of Washington Business (AWB).

“We want to send a message that Washington is open to this new technology and is willing to sit down and listen to the industry,” he added.

It’s a message Ennis articulated at the work group’s first meeting on June 27 as its members considered a proposed organizational structure. Although the draft structure has industry in the different subcommittees, the executive committee that ultimately makes the recommendations includes no private sector members. The work group voted to adopt the structure as is, but plans to address the matter more closely at their next meeting.

“We wanted industry to have a voice in the recommendations,” Ennis told Lens. “If you’re looking at policies going forward…the groups that are driving this technology so to speak need to be at the table. We can’t expect to come up with answers to a regulatory policy or scheme without having the groups that are actually creating that technology be part of the discussion.”

It’s one of the differences he sees between the new work group and one created by Governor Jay Inslee last year via an executive order whose members were all from the public sector. This year the legislature approved  HB 2970 sponsored by Rep. Zack Hudgins (D-11), one of the work group members representing the state House.

At the meeting Hudgins said the concern is valid and proposed tracking subcommittee recommendations, adding “there is that flexibility in the statute to make sure voices are being heard.”

Inslee’s Senior Policy Advisor Charles Knutson told colleagues at the meeting the overarching spirit of the bill is “trying to create an inclusive and open forum and making sure that there were many voices at the table.”

Industry is just one of many sectors at the table, indicated by the work’s group five subcommittees. That perhaps speaks to the far-reaching influence AVs may have when they begin to roll out in significant numbers. Their broad impact was reflected in opening statements made by work group members during their first meeting ranging from insurance policy and public safety to road infrastructure and data security.

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said driverless cars will cause a shift for insurance companies from personal liability toward product liability. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a slow-moving transition. How do we blend that together as we look at autonomous introduction at some point? How do they fit with personal liability as opposed to product liability?”

State Shelley Kloba (D-1) said land-use policies may also have to be considered to ensure public safety, “whether they’re in the cars, on a bike, on foot – making sure that all of those interests are at the forefront.”

Another complication for the work group is that AVs are already rolling out onto the roads, and the technology is rapidly progressing. Right now, AVs still require driver attention, but that could soon change. In 2020, Google plans to release a vehicle with no pedals or steering wheel. BMW says it will be able to product fully autonomous cars by 2021. Kroger recently announced plans to experiment with grocery deliveries using AVs, while the city of Bellevue wants to use a carpool fleet of AVs to reduce road congestion.

It’s one of the reasons why Washington shouldn’t impose any kind of regulatory structure on them yet, Ennis said. “It’s changing so fast it doesn’t make good sense to pass a scheme that would stifle or slow that technology down.”

State Department of Licensing Director Pat Kohler voiced a similar viewpoint at the June 27 meeting. “I think that there does need to be regulations in place, so that we ensure public safety, but at the same time making sure that we balance that with allowing the industry to evolve and take advantage of the technology.”

“We are going to have both kinds of vehicle on the roadway for quite some time,” she added.

Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar said that “how this new technology is developed and deployed on that (road) infrastructure is hugely important to us. It affects the state’s economy, the safety of our citizens. We believe that the stuff that we’re seeing, the stuff that we’re hearing…brings some exciting new opportunities for Washingtonians, but it has to be managed.”

Safeguarding people’s information will also be important, says Alex Alben. He is the chief privacy officer with the state Office of the Chief Information Officer. At the June 27 meeting he said “we are going to be in a world of data management, and that has many privacy implications for citizens. I think there’s solutions here.”

The work group’s executive committee meeting is in October.

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