Self-Driving Vehicles Are Coming

Spencer Peck, RA State and Local Policy Program, MJLST Guest Blogger

Self-driving vehicles are coming, possibly within the decade. But what exactly do drivers, laws and lawmakers, and local economies need to do to prepare for autonomous vehciles? On Friday, October 31 technical, legal, and policy experts will gather at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to discuss exactly this. More information about the all-day conference, Autonomous Vehicles: The Legal and Policy Road Ahead, is available by following the link.

Self-driving vehicles (SDVs) are the future of automotive transportation. Driverless cars are often discussed as a “disruptive technology” with the ability to transform transportation infrastructure, expand access, and deliver benefits to a variety of users. Some observers estimate limited availability of driverless cars by 2020 with wide availability to the public by 2040. Recent announcements by Google and other major automakers indicate huge potential for development in this area. In fact, an Audi RS7 recently self-piloted around the famous Hockheimring race track. The fully autonomous car reached 150mph and even recorded a lap that was 5 seconds faster than a human competitor! The federal automotive regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), issued a policy statement about the potentials of self-driving cars and future regulatory activity in mid-2013. The year 2020 is the most often quoted time frame for the availability of the next level of self-driving vehicles, with wider adoption in 2040-2050. However, there are many obstacles to overcome to make this technology viable, widely available, and permissible. These include developing technology affordable enough for the consumer market, creating a framework to deal with legal and insurance challenges, adapting roadways to vehicle use if necessary, and addressing issues of driver trust and adoption of the new technology. There is even some question as to who will be considered the ‘driver’ in the self-driving realm.

Although self-driving cars are few and far between, the technology is becoming ever-more present and legally accepted. For example, NHTSA requires all newly manufactured cars to have at least a low-level of autonomous vehicle technology. Some scholars even suggest that self-driving vehicles are legal under existing legal frameworks. Five states have some form of legislation expressly allowing self-driving cars or the testing of such vehicles within state boundaries. In fact, two states–California and Nevada–have even issued comprehensive regulations for both private use and testing of self-driving vehicles. Several companies, most notably Google (which drove over 500,000 miles on its original prototype vehicles), are aggressively pursuing the technology and advocating for legal changes in favor of SDVs. Automotive manufacturers from Bosch to Mercedes to Tesla are all pursuing the technology, and frequently provide updates on their self-driving car plans and projects.

The substantial benefits derived from SDVs are hard to ignore. By far the greatest implication referenced by those in the field is related to safety and convenience. NHTSA’s 2008 Crash Causation survey found that close to 90% of crashes are caused by driver mistakes. These mistakes, which include distractions, excessive speed, disobedience of traffic rules or norms, and misjudgment of road conditions, are factors within control of the driver. Roadway capacity improvement often means improvements in throughput, the maximum number of cars per hour per lane on a roadway, but can extend to other capacity concerns. Other hypothesized improvements include fewer necessary lanes due to increased throughput, narrower lanes because of accuracy and driving control of SDVs, and a reduction in infrastructure wear and tear through fewer crashes. While supplemental transportation programs and senior shuttles have provided needed services in recent decades, SDVs have the ability to expand the user base of cars to those who would normally be unable to physically drive. The elderly, disabled, and even children may be beneficiaries.