Eric Davis: Bill eyes rules for self-driving cars

Autonomous vehicles are now being road-tested in more than 20 states. Legislation to permit autonomous vehicle testing on Vermont roads, starting in 2021, is part of a transportation bill now under consideration in Montpelier.
A report prepared by the Vermont Agency of Transportation notes that there are multiple levels of autonomous vehicles. At the lowest level, cameras and radar provide warnings to drivers of unplanned lane departures, other vehicles in a driver’s blind spot, and obstructions when backing up. These features are available on many cars now on the market.
At the highest level, a completely autonomous vehicle may be fully self-driving under all conditions. Intermediate levels of autonomy would involve a vehicle that operates itself under some conditions, such as long interstate trips, but requires a human driver to be in control in other situations.
Most of the tests of autonomous vehicles to date have been in large urban areas, with the sponsors being ride-sharing companies such as Uber and technology companies such as Apple and Waymo (a subsidiary of Google). Developers of autonomous vehicles would like to expand their testing to non-metropolitan areas and more challenging weather conditions than the Sunbelt states where most tests have occurred so far.
Some researchers believe that a new market for autonomous vehicles could be elderly people, who have vision or other impairments that prevent them from driving, and who live in rural areas with limited or no public transport — a description that applies to much of Vermont.
The legislation under consideration in Vermont would require firms seeking to test autonomous vehicles in the state to receive permission in advance from the VTrans Traffic Committee. An operator would have to be present in the driver’s seat of all autonomous vehicles being tested. The driver would have to monitor the performance of the vehicle and be able to take immediate manual control of the vehicle. All autonomous vehicles being tested in Vermont would have to be clearly marked as such on the outside of the car. VTrans could promulgate regulations setting forth additional requirements for autonomous vehicle testing.
If the autonomous vehicle provisions are included in the final version of the Transportation Bill, which appears likely, VTrans would spend the next 18 months developing regulations and consulting with firms that wish to test autonomous vehicles in Vermont. The tests would begin in 2021.
One issue that is still unresolved, and could become one of the agenda items on a late-session conference committee, is whether to require advance approval from municipalities before autonomous vehicles could be tested on city and town highways. While the VTrans permits would cover testing on state highways, the House appears more inclined than the Senate to limit testing on other roads to those communities where municipal governing boards have approved such testing in advance.
Autonomous vehicle developers are particularly interested in testing their cars in winter weather conditions in Vermont. How will the systems in autonomous cars respond to roads covered in snow or ice, especially while precipitation is falling or in the hours of darkness? Also, cars operating on some sections of hilly or mountainous roads in Vermont sometimes lose satellite and GPS connectivity due to topographical considerations. How will autonomous vehicles handle such situations?
The legislation under consideration in Montpelier requires that an operator be in the driver’s seat of an autonomous vehicle at all times, in order to take control in case a test in winter or mountainous conditions needs to be terminated immediately.
Some, perhaps many, Vermonters will initially be reluctant to travel in an autonomous vehicle. However, a rigorous testing program of the type being contemplated by the legislative transportation committees and VTrans would be able to collect data on the performance of such vehicles in Vermont, to see how they might fit in to the state’s overall transportation mix.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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