Committee ponders autonomous vehicles

Sharon Fisher//June 6, 2018

Committee ponders autonomous vehicles

Sharon Fisher//June 6, 2018

photo of autonomous vehicles meeting
ITD director Brian Ness, right, discusses autonomous vehicles with Department of Commerce Director Bobbi Jo Meulemann. Photo courtesy of ITD.

Autonomous vehicles are “knocking on our door” and Idaho needs to be ready, said Brian Ness, director of the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), after the first meeting of a working group on the subject on May 30.

The Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Testing and Deployment Committee was formed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on January 2 by executive order. Autonomous vehicles are forbidden in Idaho, even for testing. A bill to change this, S.1108, made it through the Senate in 2015, but died in the House transportation committee.

Eight other states are also looking at autonomous vehicles via executive order, while 25 states – including all three states on Idaho’s southern border – have already implemented legislation allowing autonomous vehicles in some form. Nevada is the furthest ahead, having first authorized autonomous vehicles in 2011 and now running a three-stop autonomous shuttle in downtown Las Vegas.

A number of attendees – including department heads of ITD and the Department of Commerce and the owner of used car dealer Fairly Reliable Bob’s – are fine with banning the vehicles in Idaho for now. Idaho should let other states solve the problems that arise with use of the vehicles first. But the state needs to be at the table, Ness said.

photo of jeff marker
Jeff Marker. Photo courtesy of ITD.

Autonomous vehicles (see box) are being considered for several reasons. First is safety. Currently, 94 percent of accidents are caused by human error, said Jeff Marker, ITD’s freight program manager. Second, vehicles that don’t require as much human intervention could save money on drivers, as well as operate continuously for 24 hours – a particular consideration for the trucking industry.

However, autonomous vehicles face roadblocks. First is liability. If an autonomous vehicle gets into an accident, who is at fault: the operator, the owner, or the manufacturer? “If it’s speeding, who gets the ticket?” asked Bobby Peterson, owner of Fairly Reliable Bob’s. Tennessee has already passed legislation assigning the manufacturer with some liability, Marker said.

Second is cost. Autonomous vehicles typically work using sensors along the roadway, meaning markers including stop signs and lane stripes need to be maintained. Idaho is already behind on road maintenance, noted Sen. Bert Brackett, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Moreover, highway revenue – paid for by the gas tax – has been dropping as cars become more fuel-efficient. “Discussions need to be had,” he said.

Ness said it’s beyond the scope of the committee to answer the financial questions raised by allowing autonomous vehicles. He noted, though, that while Idaho could consider using general fund money for transportation — as some states, such as Utah, do — that would mean taking money away from other general fund entities such as public education and social services. This fall’s election could also make a difference, he added.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles could save money because they require narrower lanes and less following distance, meaning roads could support more vehicles, said Ed Bala, district engineer for District 5, in southeast Idaho. The shorter following distance allows for “platooning,” or having a number of vehicles operating in a line, which is more fuel-efficient – 8 lanes, 8 feet wide, traveling at 80 mph, for example. Autonomous vehicles can double the capacity of a road, but not until 75 percent of the vehicles are automated, according to a Princeton University study he presented. That may take until almost 2060, according to statistics he cited from the RAND Corporation.

Finally, there are cultural considerations. For autonomous vehicles to interact, they need a common, nationwide agreement on factors ranging from vehicle design to appropriate driving behavior. How will that be determined? Will driving standards be based on New York drivers? asked David Lincoln, commissioner for the Golden Gate Highway District, in Canyon County. In addition, how will people express their personalities through autonomous vehicles, the way they do now with traditional cars? Driving may even become “transportation as a service” instead of people owning their own vehicles. It will be a massive cultural change for America and car dealers, Peterson said.

Plus, some people are afraid. A May 22 survey by AAA found that respondents were actually more afraid of autonomous vehicles than they were last year. However, insurance companies may offer incentives to customers to encourage them to switch, said Tom Donovan, deputy director for the Idaho Department of Insurance. He added that insurance companies could collect information from autonomous vehicles, raising questions about privacy.

The committee will meet next on August 21 to discuss cybersecurity, and then will have a final meeting on October 16 to meet its November 1 deadline.


What does autonomous driving really mean?

As a relatively new field, some of the terminology around autonomous vehicles is still being determined. Terms such as automated driving systems (ADS), autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, automated driving, and cooperative automated transportation are all being thrown around.

In particular, a connected vehicle has internet access to communicate with devices inside and outside the vehicle, such as vehicle to vehicle, vehicle to infrastructure, or vehicle to “other,” such as pedestrian, bicyclist, or construction worker.

There are also several levels of automation:

  • Level 0: the human driver does all the driving
  • Level 1: the vehicle’s ADS can assist with steering, braking, and accelerating
  • Level 2: the vehicle’s ADS can control steering, braking, and accelerating under some circumstances, but the human must pay full attention at all times
  • Level 3: the vehicle’s ADS can perform all aspects of driving under some circumstances, but the human must be ready to take back control at any time
  • Level 4: the vehicle’s ADS can perform all aspects of driving under some circumstances, and the human doesn’t need to pay attention then
  • Level 5: the vehicle’s ADS does all the driving under all circumstances, and the human doesn’t have to pay attention at all

While some cars today offer some level of automated features, they are mostly around Level 2, with some approaching Level 3.