As little as three years ago, the idea of getting in a car with a stranger summoned through the Internet was unfathomable. Likewise, drivers have been discouraged to pick up hitchhikers on the side of the road they are unfamiliar with; in most states it is expressly prohibited. Popular ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber, however, have turned this long held belief upside down. It no longer seems odd to summon a car through your phone, get in the backseat of a stranger’s car and get dropped off wherever you need to be.
Self-driving vehicles seem to be experiencing the same early skepticism. According to surveys conducted by Kelley Blue Book, State Farm, The University of Michigan (PDF) and Vox, the public is generally unenthusiastic about autonomous vehicles (AVs) and doubt that AVs would improve safety. Some remain hesitant about the mix of traditional and highly autonomous vehicles on the same roads at the same time.
To address some of those concerns, the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a report on how AVs will interact with traditional drivers, and what roles states and the federal government should play to accommodate the transition. A lot of the conversation about the benefits derived from AVs, “often overlooks the safety implications that a mix of driver-operated and autonomous vehicles will bring," said report author James Hedland. The reality, however, is that there will be mix of vehicles with varying levels of autonomy.
Should a large fleet of AVs appear on the roads tomorrow, several issues would emerge. According to a study by Goodyear and the London School of Economics, traditional drivers may “bully” AVs while driving. The reason? AVs are programmed to avoid aggressive driving and protect passengers at all costs, so people could conceivably disobey an AV’s right of way or cut off an AV without repercussion.
Another issue that states will have to parse out, is liability issues when an AV and traditional vehicle get into an accident. While there have been numerous cases of this happening to Google’s self-driving car, (the self-driving car is usually rear-ended) developers have always been onboard to handle the situation.
Along with those issues, states will also be forced to come up with laws on how AVs can operate, how law enforcement should deal with pulling over an AV, and how AV drivers will be trained, along with several other issues. The federal government can help states by building model state and local laws, establishing an AV clearinghouse and developing model education materials for driver tests.
One solution for state highway safety officers and state DMVs is to control the deployment of autonomous vehicles in a limited fashion. If AVs are restricted to a well-mapped urban center versus rolled out in an uncontrolled manner, the public will become more familiar with the technology and create a more seamless transition.
Harry Lightsey, executive director of emerging technologies policy at General Motors agreed.
“We think that right now, the business model and the regulatory model that makes the most sense is to allow for these vehicles to be deployed in ride-sharing fleets in urban centers,” said Lightsey. “Give the public the opportunity to see the technology, experience the technology and determine it is safe.”
Additionally, if manufacturers were to deploy AV ride-sharing fleets, some of the costs would be recouped, softening the financial blow, and would still expose the public to self-driving cars.
Another interesting statistic is that today’s teenagers are more accepting of AVs: In one survey, 48 percent of respondents age 12-15 said they would be comfortable riding in an AV compared to 36 percent of all respondents. A similar correlation lies in ride-sharing services.
By limiting the deployment, the many challenges of regulating AV technology can be done in a safe and monitored way. Striking the balance between encouraging innovation while ensuring safety will always be a challenge.
“The key is going to be to provide the room for folks to be innovative and to create change,” said Lightsey. “At the same time, a vehicle is a product that is so strongly ties to safety that we can't ignore that.”
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.