CSG Forums Highlight Autonomous Vehicle Policy Challenges, Opportunities
By Sean Slone, director of Transportation & Infrastructure Policy
Shailen Bhatt, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s executive director, is passionate about efforts to encourage the development of autonomous and connected vehicles for a very personal reason.
“I don’t want my daughters getting in a vehicle … and getting hit by a distracted driver or a drunk driver,” he said to attendees at a CSG-hosted forum in Denver on March 22. “To me, the idea that we wouldn’t do everything that we could in our power to safely push this forward is shame on us if we don’t try to.”
Many believe autonomous and connected vehicles, once fully deployed, could potentially save 19 out of every 20 lives lost every year in traffic crashes. In 2015, more than 35,000 Americans lost their lives in such crashes.
“We’ll never be able to save every life,” Josh Fisher, manager of state government affairs at the Association of Global Automakers, said during a second CSG forum held March 28 in Olympia, Washington. “We’ll never be able to prevent every crash. But 35,000 is completely unacceptable and I think we’re obligated to do everything we can to reduce those numbers.”
But Fisher is concerned that those safety benefits could be lost if overreach by state governments and the lack of a consistent national model results in a patchwork of laws around the country that stifles innovation. Eleven states and the District of Columbia currently have autonomous vehicle-related legislation on the books. In two others, governors have signed executive orders. Moreover, Fisher said, more than 30 states have introduced over 50 bills during the 2017 legislative sessions.
“No two bills are the same, which is a problem,” he said. “They have different definitions, different requirements.”
During the week of the Denver forum, the Colorado Senate was considering legislation (SB 17-213) that would allow autonomous vehicles on state roads if they obey state and federal laws or if operators coordinate testing with the Colorado Department of Transportation or CDOT and the state patrol. The bill would also preclude municipalities from adopting their own rules on autonomous vehicles. A conference committee has been tasked with ironing out differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation.
But Colorado, which up to now has had no state laws regulating driverless vehicles, has already been at the center of an autonomous vehicle test that received significant attention last year. In October, Uber’s self-driving truck operation known as Otto, announced the completion of a commercial beer delivery from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, a 120-mile trip on I-25 that had the blessing of Bhatt’s DOT.
“That was a big risk for us,” Bhatt said. “When my team came to me and said, ‘hey we’ve got this great idea. We’ve got this truck that’s driven all over the United States in self-driving mode and they want to run it in Colorado.’ … I was like, ‘yeah, why don’t we let some other state do that?’ Because what happens to the executive director if that truck crashes? (I would be) the former Director of CDOT.”
Bhatt said ultimately they agreed to host the test because the more tests like it that are successful, the faster it will help bring about a future in which 94 percent of traffic crashes—the percentage caused by human error—aren’t happening.
Fisher said that instead of enacting what could be overly restrictive regulatory frameworks for autonomous vehicles, states should first look to identify barriers to testing that may be on the books. For example, New York has a rule that a driver must have one hand on the wheel. Fisher also said states can also look for opportunities for regional test collaboration, and noted states like Arizona, Ohio and Virginia have been successful in hosting testing without passing new laws.
“All of these states are seeing manufacturers and developers of this software and technology come to these states,” he said. “So there are lots of opportunities out there to attract investment, to attract companies to come to your state and to look to test and to work together. … It’s really about being able to test this technology to make sure it’s safe so when it is ready to deploy, we know it works and we know it’s going to achieve these benefits.”
Insurance Issues a Key Focus of Forums
When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidance last year delineating the roles of the federal and state governments in enacting policies to pave the way for autonomous and connected vehicles, the agency identified insurance and liability as one area of jurisdiction for states. The deployment of these vehicles is expected to bring big changes to traditional models of auto insurance, experts say.
“If the autonomous vehicle or the (original equipment manufacturer) is the party that is responsible for the accident, the liability is going to shift over to them,” said Robert Peterson, a law professor at Santa Clara University in California. “It’s going to become a products liability case, no longer a case where you’re looking to the driver to pay. And this is a big shift in relative responsibility.”
Peterson said while only 2 percent of crashes can be attributed to vehicle-related problems today, but that could jump to 80 to 100 percent in the future.
“As the driver’s responsibility for those accidents gets smaller and smaller and smaller and the cars get safer and safer and safer, is it still good public policy for you to mandate automobile insurance (as 49 states do today), which is an expensive thing and is very difficult for poor people who need cars to get to work, when the liability is largely moving over to the manufacturers?” he said. “That is a policy issue that you’re probably going to have to grapple with in the future.”
Other Policy Considerations
Speakers at the Denver and Olympia forums also identified a number of other areas where policymakers will need to focus their attention in the years ahead:
Rutt Bridges, a Colorado entrepreneur who has authored two books on driverless vehicles: “There will be a lot of people I think that are going to lose jobs as a result of this. I don’t make any bones about that. But at the same time there will be jobs created. … There are a lot of good reasons for this, but people need to be aware that it doesn’t come without a price.”
Bill Covington, director of the Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic at the University of Washington: “What’s going to happen to our bus drivers? What’s going to happen to our taxi drivers? Many people say that for the jobs that are lost, the new technology creates new jobs … but I don’t know if they match the ones that were lost and I believe fear of job loss can have a very significant impact politically, perhaps as we saw in the recent election.” Covington said states should consider creating a permanent state study committee that can consider autonomous vehicle-related impacts to employment, the environment, public transit and infrastructure planning, as well as what kinds of tweaks to state laws may be needed to respond to the latest developments.
Many have hopes that the autonomous vehicle future will take shape with a focus on mobility-as-a-service, which will mean a shift away from personally owned vehicles to on-demand services such as ride-hailing companies. Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, said policymakers eventually will need to assess the impact of autonomous vehicles and mobility-as-a-service on statewide revenue collections (from gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, etc.), safety, congestion levels, transit usage and utilization of park and ride facilities. They will also need to determine the impacts of those things on the mobility of low-income, disadvantaged and disabled populations. Finally, they will need to assess long-term autonomous vehicle-related infrastructure investment needs and determine how to balance those with other ongoing statewide funding needs such as maintenance and preservation.
The final two CSG Autonomous & Connected Vehicle Policy Forums will take place April 19 in Hartford, Connecticut and April 26 in Montgomery, Alabama. Program segments addressing emerging insurance and liability issues are presented by The Institutes Griffith Insurance Education Foundation, a nonpartisan, non-advocative, educational organization with whom CSG collaborates on a variety of projects. The states chosen to host these forums were selected in consultation with the Association of Global Automakers.
“Start Planning Now for Autonomous Vehicle Future, Researchers Say,” The Current State, Feb. 6, 2017.
“Top 5 Issues for 2017: Transportation & Infrastructure Policy: The Future is Now (for Autonomous Vehicles),” CSG Blog Post, Jan. 9, 2017.