The future of self-driving cars is upon us, and the North Carolina General Assembly is, well, paving the way.
With a bipartisan and near-unanimous vote during the short session, our state legislature passed House Bill 469 into law, regulating the operation of fully autonomous vehicles — if and when they become available in our state. The governor signed the legislation on July 21.
According to the new law, a “fully autonomous vehicle” is a motor vehicle equipped with an automated driving system that does not require an occupant to perform any portion of the operational control of the vehicle. The law does not require an operator to be a licensed driver and allows operators as young as 12-years old. Driverless vehicles must still be covered by a motor vehicle liability policy, however, and the vehicle must be registered like other cars. HB469 makes the registered owner of a self-driving vehicle responsible for any moving violations of that vehicle.
In the course of setting state policy, HB469 also preempts cities and counties in the state from enacting any local laws regulating driverless cars.
For the purposes of ongoing review, the new law establishes the “Fully Autonomous Vehicle Committee” within the state Department of Transportation. Consisting of 18 members, including representatives from the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, and the State Highway Patrol, the group will meet at least four times a year to review changes in technology and how the law needs to keep up.
Those federal laws may be coming soon in the form of the SELF DRIVE (“Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution”) Act, otherwise known as HR3388. The SELF DRIVE Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously.
The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group that includes Uber, Ford and Volvo, released a statement praising the House for passing the act. “Self-driving vehicles offer an opportunity to significantly increase safety, improve transportation access for underserved communities, and transform how people, goods and services get from point A to B.”
According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the SELF DRIVE Act would preempt state and local laws regarding the design, construction, or performance of autonomous vehicles and their component parts. It would direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue rules relating to safety certifications and establish cybersecurity standards for autonomous vehicles, among standards.
States will still be responsible for vehicle registration, insurance, driver education, law enforcement and other local issues, The Hill reports. Manufacturers will be required to include cybersecurity and privacy protections in their vehicles.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a new guidance document for automated driving systems. “The new Guidance supports further development of this important new technology,” said Secretary Chao. “The safe deployment of automated vehicle technologies means we can look forward to a future with fewer traffic fatalities and increased mobility for all Americans.”
The voluntary guidelines, called A Vision for Safety, are a set of standards containing 12 priority safety design elements to facilitate the integration of ADS technology by helping to ensure its safe testing and deployment, as well as encouraging the development of systems that guard against cyber-attacks and protect consumer privacy.
The Self-Driving Coalition continues to monitor developments in emerging standards in autonomous vehicle regulations and standards and said in a press release: “The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is pleased to see the Trump Administration continuing the work to bring fully self-driving vehicles to U.S. roads. With more than 35,000 motor vehicle deaths in 2015, the potential safety benefits of fully self-driving technology are too important to delay. We look forward to continue working with Secretary Chao, NHTSA and Congress in pursuit of the right policy solutions to make self-driving technology’s safety and mobility efforts a reality.”
“Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are already being used and their proliferation is inevitable,” the report states. “AVs have the potential to fundamentally alter transportation systems by averting deadly crashes, providing critical mobility to the elderly and disabled, increasing road capacity, saving fuel, and lowering emissions.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that each year, the number of states considering legislation related to autonomous vehicles has gradually increased.
- In 2017, 33 states have introduced legislation. Last year, 20 states introduced legislation.
- Sixteen states introduced legislation in 2015; up from 12 states in 2014, nine states and Washington D.C. in 2013, and six states in 2012.
- Since 2012, at least 41 states and Washington D.C. have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles.
- Twenty-one states have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington D.C.
- Governors in Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles.
Actual drivers aren’t completely sold on autonomous vehicles, however and are lagging behind government in their enthusiasm. A 2016 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute reported that most drivers still want to some control. Only 16 percent of those surveyed would prefer to ride in a driverless car, 39 percent would prefer a “partially self-driving” vehicle, and 46 percent want to remain in “full control” of a vehicle.
The Long Road Ahead
As states are responding now to the buzz about the promise of fully automated vehicles, their arrival for practical use may be a decade out. Remember, this technology has been in development since the 1980s and it’s not quite ready for general use.
However, as more enabling technologies are developed and become cheaper, the prospect of self-driving cars on our roads seems inevitable.
The writers at Automotive News caution that, “the obstacles to perfecting and mass producing fully automated vehicles that can safely transport a passenger door-to-door with no human intervention are formidable: Sensing equipment, such as cameras, lidar and radar, has to get more efficient, especially in inclement weather. It also must get less expensive.”
“Software has to be perfected that links the vehicle’s controls with all the sensing hardware. And this software must be able to anticipate nearly every scenario a vehicle can encounter, from inclement weather, to a traffic cop’s hand signals, to a pedestrian darting into traffic. Infrastructure needs to be improved, from lane markings, to traffic signals, to bridges, as well as the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems. For a vehicle to drive itself safely in all conditions and speeds, it has to know where it is at all times so that, for example, it anticipates a stop sign around a corner.”
“In order to accomplish this safely, it is estimated that some 14.2 billion kilometers [8.8 billion miles] of testing, including simulation, are required,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda said.
Manufacturers hope they can continue developing driverless car technology without the costly process of trial and error. Mishaps early in the rollout period have made that clear.
On May 7, 2016, a 40-year-old Ohio resident, Joshua Brown, was killed while operating the semi-autonomous Tesla Model S in ‘Autopilot’ mode. The car’s sensors system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway in front of the car and neither the operator nor computer hit the brakes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into the accident and concluded that the deadly crash was not caused by a “safety-related defect.” The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted its own investigation of the crash and concluded that the design of Tesla’s Autopilot system should share the blame, because the “automated vehicle control system was not designed to, and could not, identify the truck crossing the Tesla’s path or recognize the impending crash.”
Tesla posted a blog entry soon after the crash saying that the ‘Autopilot’ system did not notice “the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”
“It’s a near guarantee Joshua Brown won’t be the only person to die at the wheel of a semi-autonomous car,” writes Wired magazine. “The systems aren’t perfect, but the statistics now show the humans who cause 94 percent of crashes are worse. From that perspective, driverless cars can’t come quickly enough.”
Studies by the NHTSA have shown that human driver error is the cause of more than more than 90 percent of vehicle crashes.
Another critical question states are grappling with is the replacement of revenues that have come from traditional vehicle use. A state’s primary sources of revenue for road building and maintenance are taxing motor fuels and car sales, and charging Division of Motor Vehicles fees. The taxation of motor fuels alone generates $3.7 billion for transportation funding in the state of North Carolina.
With the advent of electric cars, lawmakers need to find sources other than motor fuel taxes to meet their long-term transportation needs. Increases in fuel efficiency has already sent transportation departments scrabbling to restore revenues based on fuel usage. Autonomous vehicles could pose further problems with fewer people owning cars or getting driver’s licenses, thereby reducing DMV fee revenues.