The route to driverless cars

The route to driverless cars
The legislature has approved HB 2970, which creates a state work group to look at potential changes to state laws and rules in anticipation of driverless vehicles. Photo:

Driverless vehicle technology is still under development, but Washington stakeholders aren’t waiting to encourage its inclusion in regional transportation policy. A presentation last year to the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) on behalf of the Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group envisioned a lane on Interstate 5 from Seattle to British Columbia fully dedicated to driverless vehicles as a way to reduce congestion and improve mobility in that corridor.

They’re not alone in their enthusiasm for driverless cars. Jerry Kaplan at the Center for Legal Informatics at Stanford University has argued that the technology could make commutes faster, improve commercial shipping and consume less energy. Others have noted the industry’s $3 trillion in potential financial benefits to the country.

However, as the technology rolls out,  the presence of these vehicles on the road may have unforeseen implications for transportation policy and the state’s legal framework. In anticipation of these changes, the state legislature approved HB 2970, which creates a work group through the WSTC to examine the use of driverless vehicles on public roadways and recommend legislative action. Sponsored by Rep. Zack Hudgins (D-11), the bill was approved by the House on Mar. 3 with a 90-6 vote. Prior, it received unanimous support in the Senate.

The immediate, persistent question regarding driverless cars has been safety related. Last year Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order establishing a vehicle work group and allowing pilot programs to test vehicles under certain conditions. Inslee is one of five governors to have issued such an order. Nationally, 21 states have passed laws regarding their use. In 2017, 33 states introduced driverless car-related legislation.

Paul Guppy is the vice president for research at the Washington Policy Center. He told Lens that “there’s a lot of excitement about this technology,” but added policymakers need to be “conservative about allowing them on the roads legally. Absolutely make sure they work. I think people are reluctant to criticize it, but we are talking about a potentially deadly activity.

“I’m not pessimistic about new technology,” he added. “It’s great, it’s good, but in terms of the process of adopting it as public policy (and) allowing these vehicles on public streets, those who promote that technology have to prove it first.”

Yet the true role of driverless vehicles won’t be known until the technology progresses and their use has been thoroughly tested on roads. For one, truly autonomous vehicles (AV’s) aren’t yet commercially available.

Although Tesla vehicles have “autopilot” technology, the driver must still pay attention and remains legally liable. Google plans to release a vehicle in 2020 that has no pedals or steering wheel and is currently being tested on a private campus in Kirkland. As of June 2016, Google’s autonomous vehicles have driven over 1.7 million miles.

HB 2970 has the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate pick two members from each party in both chambers to serve on the work group.

Among their considerations are:

  • The development of autonomous vehicle technology and deployment;
  • Current federal, state and local AV policies regarding their use;
  • Possible changes to state laws, as well as state agency rules to accommodate the presence of AV’s on public roads; and
  • Determine major public concerns regarding AV.

The work group will also include officials from key state agencies, such as WSTC, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the state insurance commissioner.

The bill proposal in many ways mirrors a recommendation made to Seattle in a 2017 white paper by the University of Washington ‘s Tech Policy Lab, which advocated the city “identify a general AV strategy to guide the decision making processes of policymakers, and initiate coalition-building with research institutions, public agencies, NGOs, and businesses throughout the region.

“Taking these steps now will better position Seattle to continue to thrive in an eventual world of far greater automation in transportation,” the paper concluded. Among other things, the paper found that AV’s pose a range of legal and policy challenges, and their introduction will likely be “gradual and geographically uneven.”

While proponents of driverless vehicles view it as one way to address congestion, others fear it may cause further traffic problems if driverless cars aren’t required to have people in them. Rather than pay for parking, owners could simply have the car drive back home or have run a route while they’re at an appointment.

However, Guppy questions how popular driverless cars will prove. One possible outcome seen with other technology is that it is becomes popular for industrial and agricultural uses on private land. In that context, legal and safety issues over the vehicle’s use would be easier to address.

“We’re constantly hearing about ideas that have real merit; they’re not crazy ideas, but they never get pushed through to actual practicality,” Guppy said. “Even though it’s an exciting idea…I’m still skeptical that they will be able to get it to the level where we’re confident that these (fully autonomous) machines can drive around without causing more problems than they actually solve.”

However, AV technology in agriculture could also help address flaws for driverless cars meant for public road use, Guppy added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where it starts in a much more controlled way that eliminates a lot of the technical problems.”

HB 2970 now awaits Inslee’s signature.



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