May 15, 2017

CT preps for driverless cars

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Ridesharing company Uber is testing its autonomous vehicles (shown above) in several states. Connecticut is aiming to be a future test site of the driverless technology.
PHOTO | Contributed
Uber’s autonomous cars have experienced some issues, including a driverless crash that occurred in Arizona in March.
PHOTO | Contributed
Every self-driving Uber is equipped with an iPad in the backseat to show riders what the car can “see.”
Sen. Carlo Leone (D-Stamford)

Connecticut lawmakers are considering legislation to allow testing of driverless vehicles in up to four municipalities to help the state determine how best to prepare for the cars' seemingly inevitable arrival on a large scale.

"It's coming whether we do something or not and I'd rather be in a position to frame [regulations] in a way that we think is best for us within industry standards versus the industry being built without our input and then us being forced to have to adjust in the future," said state Sen. Carlo Leone (D-Stamford) of Senate Bill 260.

Leone sponsored the bill, which calls for the test cities and establishing a taskforce to monitor the testing and how autonomous vehicles will impact the state and its automobile industry.

Hartford and Stamford are considered possible test sites, he said. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim also has urged the General Assembly to consider Bridgeport as a testing ground. The bill passed out of a joint Transportation Committee in March and awaits a vote in the full Senate.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he wants to position Connecticut as a leader in the driverless-car sector.

"In order to accomplish this," Malloy said in a written statement, "we must compete for the interest of the driverless car manufacturing and technology companies. That's why we are working with the legislature to prepare for the full deployment of this technology on our roads and to establish a framework for testing this technology."

If the bill is enacted, it's difficult to say when autonomous vehicles could hit Connecticut streets, said Garrett Eucalitto, undersecretary for transportation, conservation and development for the state's Office of Policy and Management. OPM and sister agencies first must establish the parameters for cities to apply for the test program, then municipalities would need to apply and find private technology partners, he said.

That could take upwards of a year but until legislation is finalized, it's difficult to predict timing.

"Our position really is that we don't want to be caught off-guard as car manufacturers begin to launch these on the streets," Eucalitto said. "We want to make sure that we plan for their arrival by taking the time to look at the impacts on the state, but especially our roads, our insurance statutes, our land-use planning," and whether statutes need to be changed as the vehicles proliferate, he said.

OPM, seeing the evolution of driverless technology, had already convened other state departments last fall, including insurance, transportation, motor vehicles, and emergency services and public protection to begin reviewing existing statutes, how driverless cars fit in them, and what issues could arise, Eucalitto said.

"The statutes were drafted before any concept of driverless vehicles existed, so there are glaring holes in the current construct," he said.

For example, Eucalitto said, statutes require proof of insurance to register a motor vehicle, but if it is a driverless vehicle, would the insurance cover it if the individual in the car is not a licensed driver? If there is no driver in the vehicle, who's at fault for an accident?

"It also is unclear about who is 'operating' the vehicle," he said. "Those are just a couple of the many gray areas."

Before testing, Connecticut would check with other states conducting testing for guidance and with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which issued guidelines last year for states to consider in drafting autonomous vehicle legislation.

Testing would occur in designated areas, with the state wanting to monitor, for example, how the vehicles do in snow-covered lanes.

The state would want to see such results before lawmakers pass any laws allowing driverless vehicles anywhere in the state, especially on highways like 95, 91 or the Merritt Parkway, Eucalitto said.

"Before we get to that point, we would like to see them operating safely in a constrained area so that they can be monitored and they don't pose a hazard to the public," he said.

After all testing and taskforce recommendations, the state could better determine how statutes and regulations would need to change.

Risks, rewards

Benefits from the technology include safety, by eliminating the human error responsible for most crashes; increased mobility for disabled people; and less congestion and pollution if the vehicles are used in ridesharing fleets that encourage people to leave their own cars at home, which also frees up parking lots for alternative uses like parks or housing, according to various reports.

Downsides could include more sprawl if people move farther from the office because they can use commute time for productive tasks other than driving.

Driverless vehicles are already being tested around the U.S., including by Google, Tesla and ridesharing company Uber and crashes have occurred. Those include an Uber crash in Arizona in March, a Tesla crash in Florida that killed its driver last year while the vehicle was in autopilot mode, and a Google collision with a bus in Mountain View, Calif., last year, according to Reuters.

Uber began testing autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh two years ago, when it also launched UberPool, where multiple riders in close proximity or on a similar route share one vehicle to their destination, thus reducing each rider's cost. Uber believes shared, self-driving technology will be key to future transportation, according to testimony on SB 260 submitted by Justin Kintz, Uber Technologies Inc.'s head of U.S. public affairs.

Driverless vehicles will improve safety, relieve congestion and improve air quality, but before benefiting from self-driving technology, Connecticut first must establish ridesharing regulations, Kintz testified.

Such legislation, already in many states, is pending. House Bill 7126, which passed the Insurance & Real Estate Committee in March, would require ridesharing networks to register annually with the state, display credentials, provide receipts for services offered digitally, and require national and state background checks of drivers.

The state also would regulate what it calls "dynamic" or on-demand pricing for services, requiring companies to give customers notice of unusually high prices and cap the highest cost at 2.5 times the usual price charged any other time.

Through a robust ridesharing network, Connecticut can maximize self-driving cars by operating them in shared fleets, Kintz said. Rather than replacing current vehicles with self-driving cars, a shared fleet allows more people to leave their vehicles at home, leading to less emissions and fewer vehicles on Connecticut roadways, he said.

Uber, which supports SB 260, wants the state to pause efforts to legislate self-driving rules while the technology is evolving and instead study what Kintz called the life-saving benefits of the technology.

If 260 is enacted, Leone anticipates a taskforce report next year, "but we don't want it to end there," he said, anticipating possible reports every six months for lawmakers to consider.

The taskforce, with industry experts on it, could address problems or risks learned through the testing and provide direction for future legislative sessions to help the industry grow not only from a technology perspective "but also from an oversight, regulatory perspective."

Sean Slone, director of transportation and infrastructure policy for The Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky., suggested in a blog earlier this year that states have to walk a fine line between encouraging the technology and regulating it.

"In trying to encourage the development of these technologies and perhaps reap an economic windfall, states will need to guard against doing more harm than good through legislation and regulation," he said in summarizing the issue, adding that passing a patchwork set of laws could create uncertainty for car manufacturers.

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