Most autonomous vehicle (AV) testing to date uses human drivers behind the wheel for backup, but AVs with no foot pedals or steering controls at all already are hitting the road. States had better think through and address some key issues before truly driverless trucks and cars start mixing in on America's roadways.
So recommends a new report prepared for the Governors Highway Safety Assn. (GHSA). Since states themselves are responsible for licensing drivers, registering vehicles, and establishing and enforcing traffic safety laws, the report says the states "should begin planning now to deal with the traffic safety issues presented when autonomous and driver-operated vehicles share the roads."
The report makes note of advanced AV testing and use on roadways today including AV developer Otto's autonomous truck that last fall delivered a 53-ft. trailer load of beer on a 120-mi. route in Colorado. Perhaps most strikingly, the GHSA report cites five recent studies that indicate knowledge of AVs among the public is limited, and trust is another thing entirely.
The studies "show considerable skepticism about AVs currently, sometimes with twice as many negative responses as positive," the report authors state. Further, only one out of six drivers say they're willing to ride in an AV today, and only one out of three said they'd ride in an AV in 10 years. That widespread distrust simply could be a reaction to new technology that will ease over time, the report suggests, but it's another good reason for states to address AVs.
It's because of such realities that the report recommends states get ahead of autonomous vehicle testing and get involved setting new laws and parameters for their operation — before AVs start showing up en masse next to human-driven vehicles. States are advised to consider a number of things now, with that "not if but when" autonomous vehicle emergence unfolding more quickly than many realize.
How will AVs be tested and allowed for in each state?
It may be that AVs can be tested legally in most states under current laws, although conditions are in place in some cases such as a backup driver being required to have a hand on the steering wheel or at least be in the vehicle and ready to take control if necessary, as was the case with the Otto tractor-trailer.
Even so, states could require each AV organization to apply for testing and specify autonomous vehicle, operator, safety plan and other information. The report notes that as of Dec. 2016, California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Utah and the District of Columbia have enacted laws authorizing AV testing under certain conditions.
What will AVs do when they need to make 'common sense' decisions?
The report points out that there are a number of gray areas drivers encounter out on the road where AVs will need to make a decision, and "states should attempt to understand how AVs will resolve these conflicts."
For example, a dog runs into the street in the AV's path. Will the AV hit the dog, if it must, or swerve harshly and possibly crash into a tree? Or if there's a parked vehicle ahead blocking the travel lane but the road is otherwise empty, will the AV cross over the double yellow center line — which is normally illegal — to get around the stopped car?
Consider when else it might make sense to bend the rules a little: take speeding, where you have many (or most) drivers exceeding the posted limit frequently. Echoing the arguments now being debated regarding potential heavy truck speed limiters, if AVs are programmed to do only the speed limit but no more, "they will frustrate many following drivers," the report authors point out.
Yet if programmed to exceed the speed limit, AVs by definition would thus be designed "to break the law consistently." The speed issue already has come up for Google's AV fleet in California, the report notes, where AVs obeying the speed limit have encountered difficulty merging with speeding motorists on highways.
How will law enforcement officers recognize and interact with AVs?
Aside from thinking through the conditions under which AVs will be allowed to operate and where, one thing for states to consider now is law enforcement's readiness to deal with self-driving vehicles.
That goes for officer safety: does AV operation pose risks to them? Can officers identify what level of autonomous operation a vehicle has — from 1-5 — and what rules and requirements apply to it? How do you pursue and conduct stops of AVs if necessary?
And here's a noteworthy and worrying consideration: AVs conceivably could be used as "mules" to transport illegal goods and contraband. Criminals and terrorists could wire an AV with explosives and essentially use it as a guided missile.
But aside from those more extreme scenarios, law enforcement will need to be prepared to deal with more typical problems such as if a human driver has a "road rage" incident with an AV, and states should look to officer training on AVs.
What about liability and insurance?
As Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' CEO Sergio Marchionne pointed out last month, the question of liability regarding autonomous vehicles is a significant one and needs to be settled.
"Who's responsible for a crash in which an AV is at least partially at fault: the 'driver,' the vehicle manufacturer, the software provider or some combination?" the report asks. The first step in this regard is for states to work out how they'll determine an AV's responsibility in a crash, and states will need to divvy up that liability for AVs between the vehicle's manufacturers, software providers, owners, operators and others, according to the report.
"While various strategies [on liability] have been proposed, there is no consensus and discussions likely will continue for some time," the report states. In addition, as AVs become more prevalent, insurers themselves will need to reconsider their products and how they'll rate them, since traditionally a driver's insurance premiums are set based on his or her prior driving experience.
The report raises these and a number of other questions for states concerning AVs, including more far-reaching effects such as what autonomous vehicles will mean for traffic lanes and design, interactions with pedestrians and cyclists and parking requirements. In the meantime, the report recommends that states get informed on AVs, get involved, understand their role, don't hurry but thoroughly consider legislation that's enacted, and be flexible since "this is a new game."