July | August 2017







Autonomous Vehicles: Costs, Benefits and Public Policy Considerations    

By Lisa McKinney, CSG communications associate
Market forecasts estimate some manufacturers could release autonomous vehicle models as soon as 2017. The technology enabling autonomous vehicles, vehicles capable of sensing their environment and navigating without human input, is rapidly advancing.
Introducing this new kind of car to our roads, however, will disrupt traditional automobile insurance models, require new infrastructure, and necessitate legislation on safety and testing, say experts. Brenda Powell Wells, risk management and insurance program director at East Carolina University, discussed how autonomous vehicle technology works and the myriad questions and challenges the technology presents at a recent CSG eCademy webcast presented in partnership with The Griffith Insurance Education Foundation.
A vehicle is considered autonomous if it can detect its surroundings using radar, laser detection, motion sensors, computer vision and GPS. Industry experts suggest autonomous vehicles’ potential benefits include less driver error and therefore fewer accidents, injuries and fatalities—93 percent of auto accidents are due to human error. Accidents due to driver impairment, from either intoxication or health issues, will also be reduced or eliminated. “We expect computers, lacking in emotion, lacking in distraction, will be able to drive much better than humans,” said Powell Wells.
With cars doing all the work of driving, people will gain more leisure or work time. “With an autonomous vehicle you could read a book, you could play a game, you could do work, there are a lot of things you could be doing in the car that would free up more time for leisure,” said Powell Wells. Autonomous vehicles also will allow for higher speed limits, smoother rides, increased road capacity and reduced traffic congestion due to decreased need for safety gaps, she said, and will reduce the need for traffic patrol and auto insurance.
Introducing autonomous vehicles to our roads will also bring a host of challenges that need to be considered by lawmakers. If an accident occurs, it may be difficult to determine liability. Liability will likely be placed on the manufacturer of the vehicle or the software driving the vehicle, but cases may get more complicated when an autonomous vehicle is in an accident with a non-autonomous vehicle, according to Powell Wells.
There also may be resistance by some people who do not want to give up control of their cars, either because they enjoy driving or because they don’t trust the technology. If autonomous vehicles become the norm, new drivers may not learn to drive as well, which could be dangerous if and when situations arise that require them to take back control of the car. “Inexperienced drivers are going to result if we hand everybody an autonomous vehicle,” said Powell Wells. “You take somebody who has been handed an autonomous vehicle; they don’t know how to drive a car if they have always relied on that navigation system and that autonomous system. So you’re going to have more inexperienced drivers when complex driving situations arise that require manual driving.”
The Florida Department of Transportation studied the attitudes of the elderly on adopting autonomous vehicles, as the elderly stand to reap some of the most significant benefits from this technology, said Powell Wells. The study found the biggest issue is trust. “People just don’t trust the technology yet because it hasn’t been proven,” she said. “They are inherently afraid of equipment failures. But I think people want to see it developed. Based on my reading, I think more people than not want to see this technology developed and become trustworthy, but we are just not there yet.” 
One of the biggest concerns people have is the loss of privacy due to sharing of information through vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure protocols, such as with intersections, traffic lights and signals.
“It brings to mind George Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984,” said Powell Wells. “Somebody is going to know where you are. And there will be a record of where you were, where you drove and how fast you drove there. That concerns people.”
The technology itself presents problems as well. Software reliability is vital—if the software malfunctions it could cause accidents. A car's computer could potentially be compromised, as could a communication system between cars by disrupting camera sensors or jamming GPS. Ethical problems arise in situations where the car’s software is forced during an unavoidable crash to choose between multiple harmful courses of action. For example, the car may see an accident coming and have the choice to hit a brick wall that will kill the driver or hit a child crossing the street and save the driver. It is unclear how the computer will know what decision to make.
Current road infrastructure may need to be updated for autonomous cars to function optimally. Street lighting may need to be changed to optimize for radar vision instead of human sight. Powell Wells said the U.S. might need to invest in radically changing roadways, including networking streetlights and installing sensors at intersections and elsewhere.
“Our current infrastructure is not adequate,” she said. “There are going to be changes needed for autonomous cars to function optimally.” 
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, released guidance for states on autonomous vehicles in September that outlines the responsibilities of the federal government and state governments regarding autonomous vehicle policy. The Federal Autonomous Vehicles Policy includes guidance in such areas as vehicle performance, model state policy, NHTSA’s current regulatory tools and modern regulatory tools.
“Response to the guidance appeared to be largely positive,” said Sean Slone, CSG director of transportation and infrastructure policy, in a Sept. 22 blog post. “And with the ink not even dry on the document, a number of states appeared poised to move quickly on new autonomous vehicle legislation in the days and months ahead.”
According to the recent CSG Capitol Research policy brief, “State Laws on Autonomous Vehicles,” seven states—California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah—and the District of Columbia had enacted autonomous legislation by August 2016. Arizona has an executive order on the books to establish pilot programs to advance the testing of self-driving cars on public roads.
Experts expect many more states to pass legislation related to autonomous vehicles now that federal policy guidance on the issue has been released.
Powell Wells said she believes state legislation will focus first and foremost on public safety issues such as how many people have to be in an autonomous vehicle at all times and what kind of driver behavior is acceptable when using one. And consistent legal framework is key, she said.
“I think we’ve learned from other legislative issues, insurance for one, vehicles and safety for another, that uniformity across state lines is for the most part desirable,” she said. “If you think particularly about vehicles and safety, we all have the same drinking age, we all have very close to the same speed limits, it doesn’t make sense to me to keep approaching this randomly and without coordination given that these vehicles can easily cross state lines.”