Committee recommends Idaho allow autonomous vehicles

Sharon Fisher//October 24, 2018

Committee recommends Idaho allow autonomous vehicles

Sharon Fisher//October 24, 2018

photo of jeff marker
Jeff Marker, ITD freight program manager. Photo courtesy of ITD.

A gubernatorial committee on autonomous vehicles has issued a draft report recommending Idaho allow their testing and deployment, but with sidebars to ensure roadways remain safe for everyone, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

The most recent meeting, held on Oct. 16, was the last of three meetings for the committee in its current form. Previous meetings were held on May 30 and Aug. 21. The report is due to the governor by Nov. 1 and was released to the committee in draft form at the meeting, presented by Jeff Marker, Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) freight program manager.

The report’s recommendations include encouraging legislation to allow autonomous vehicle testing and deployment, and coordinating regulatory, policy and standardization decisions to ensure Idaho’s policies don’t conflict with those of other states. Committee members also agreed that it was preferable to write a new code section to include autonomous vehicles (“cooperative automated transportation,” or CAT, the most recent acronym) rather than rewriting existing code because that would take too long and risk introducing errors.

Some sections of code might need to be rewritten, however, because in some cases they are predicated on having a human driver in the vehicle who is in control. Committee members were also encouraged not to require that the operator of the vehicle be a licensed driver, because that would mean that people who are disabled wouldn’t be able to take advantage of autonomous vehicles.

One way to get people used to autonomous vehicles is via public transit, Marker said, adding that Boise State University and Kootenai County were interested.

A significant issue is going to be finding funding to support autonomous vehicles, particularly in rural areas, Marker said. For example, communities that have trouble finding money to pave their roads are going to find it difficult to maintain the striping that autonomous vehicles require, he said. At the same time, without the involvement of rural communities, Idaho runs the risk of having a disconnected road system without the safety and efficiency advantages of autonomous vehicles in rural areas, he said.

In addition, because the majority of autonomous vehicles are expected to be electric, Idaho will continue to face transportation revenue pressures, because highways are currently funded by a gas tax, Marker said. Idaho belongs to a consortium of Northwest states that are looking at other alternatives, such as road user charges, he said.

The draft report also recommends that Idaho study the economic impacts of CAT on issues such as the displacement of workers, disruptive technology leading to new industry, business opportunities and new training opportunities. However, ITD Director Brian Ness said at the first meeting that it was beyond the scope of the committee to answer the financial questions raised by allowing autonomous vehicles.

Marker and Ness, with the support of the rest of the committee, also stressed the importance of staying technology-neutral – in other words, not implementing any requirements or specifications, such as communications protocols, that limited Idaho’s future development options.

What happens to the committee going forward is undetermined, Ness said. A new governor will be elected in November, to take office in January, and that person will determine whether the committee is dissolved completely, continues in some form, or is re-formed with different people, he said.

The Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Testing and Deployment Committee was formed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on Jan. 2 by executive order. Currently, 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.