PHILADELPHIA—Preparing for autonomous vehicles on American roads will mean more than getting used to being in a car without a steering wheel.
Corporations, planners, and regulators are already contending with the technology’s implications, and thorny questions.
What do the police do if there’s an accident involving two vehicles with no drivers?
Who is held liable when an autonomous vehicle errs?
Those were among the topics at a two-day symposium hosted by the Federal Highway Administration in Philadelphia recently. After the event, the agency’s acting administrator, Brandye Hendrickson, discussed the federal government’s approach to the nascent technology.
The task of the federal government, she said, is to ensure that the technology is safe, convince the public of the technology’s potential and allow developers latitude to explore a still-evolving industry.
“We don’t want to mandate the technology because we don’t want to hinder innovation,” Hendrickson said after the conference.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are devising what amounts to a driver’s test for autonomous vehicle software that’s able to simulate driving conditions in virtual reality, something researchers say could be a valuable check on a technology that is moving faster than government regulation.
Autonomous vehicle testing by Uber in Pittsburgh was canceled in March after one of the ride-share company’s vehicles hit and killed a pedestrian. Governments walk a tightrope, she said, between ensuring that the technology is safe and giving it space to progress. Proponents of autonomous vehicles say they could significantly reduce the number of vehicle crashes and related deaths in the United States. About 94 percent of car crashes are attributable to human error.
“We’ve had 37,000 fatalities on U.S. roads (a year),” Hendrickson said. “Every single life lost is one too many but the promise that innovation holds I think gives us hope. We do have to balance that hope with the reality that further testing and refining the technology and making sure the public is ready is also critical.”
Hendrickson did say there is a need for more uniformity in standards. Currently, with each state setting its own guidelines (29 states have passed some form of autonomous vehicle-related legislation), standards are a patchwork divided by state lines.
“There is a desire for more consistency across the country,” Hendrickson said.
Planners also need to prepare for the infrastructure that could make autonomous vehicles safer. The vehicles will likely need to be able to communicate with each other to maximize their efficiency. While autonomous vehicle prototypes rely on a system of cameras, lasers, and stored map data to navigate, they would be far more effective if they are receiving information from other autonomous vehicles on the road. Those connections can be extended to traffic lights and road signs, if they’re upgraded. That would cost money.
Planners will also face mundane challenges, like keeping road quality at a suitable level for autonomous vehicles. Now, for example, the technology has trouble identifying potholes. “Real life issues like that will have to be addressed,” she said.
The conference did not address specific policy prescriptions, she said, but focused on discussing the issues the technology would create.
Hendrickson wouldn’t predict when autonomous vehicles would move beyond the testing stage. When it happens, though, they will share the road with human drivers, perhaps for decades as a slow conversion away from traditional cars takes place.
“We will be functioning in a mixed fleet environment for a while, for a long time,” she said. “Freedom of choice in mobility is something that we endorse and we embrace.”
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