Automation

Will Alabama Be the Next State to Regulate Driverless Cars?

Alabama lawmakers are meeting this week to figure out how to make the state’s roads ready for robots.

by Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala. / January 17, 2017
An experimental Ford Fusion autonomous car, lidar sensors on the roof, drives itself in Dearborn, Mich., on Sept. 12, 2016. (Russ Mitchell/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

(TNS) — Self-driving cars may be years away, but a handful of Alabama lawmakers are meeting this week to figure out how to make the state’s roads ready for robots.

State Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, said autonomous cars are indeed coming, and could change everything from insurance coverage to court funding to alcohol laws.

“With a self-driving car, I could get drunk at Damn Yankees, get in my car and say, ‘Siri, take me home,’” he said. “But if there’s a wreck, who’s responsible?”

Whatley is the head of the Legislative Committee on Self Driving Vehicles, which will hold its first meeting Thursday in Auburn. The group is tasked with researching rules of the road for the era of robot cars.

For years, autonomous cars seemed to inhabit the space between science fiction and the Consumer Electronics Show. Google, Uber and Tesla have all tested autonomous cars on public roads, and Tesla offers an “autopilot” feature on some of its electric cars that can match the speed of other cars on an expressway and keep a car in a lane by itself, according to accounts in the press.

So far, only 11 states and the District of Columbia have enacted regulations to govern self-driving cars. In the others, including Alabama, it’s legally risky at best to cruise down the road with your hands off the wheel. But self-driving technology is already here, Whatley said.

“Auburn (University) is already testing 18-wheelers going around the track at a facility here,” Whatley said. Researchers are looking for ways to drive big rigs together in groups, Whatley said, almost like a train — an arrangement that could cut down on fuel costs. The Star’s attempts to reach the National Center for Asphalt Technology, where Whatley said the testing is occurring, weren’t successful.

Self-driving cars could change life more than most people realize, said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, who’s also on the committee. Dial foresees a world in which a car is something you call — like Uber — rather than own, even in a small town.

“It’s coming,” Dial said. “It’s going to happen. In 20 years, you’ll just dial up a car on your phone and it will pick you up and drop you off.”

The implications for state law are sizable, and committee members so far have more questions than answers. How would the state pay for district courts, which are mostly funded by traffic fines and the court fees attached to them? How many truckers could lose their jobs? What kind of identification will people carry if almost no one has a driver’s license?

And perhaps the biggest question: Who pays when there’s a collision?

“Who’s going to be liable if there is a crash?” Whatley said. “Is it the person who’s asleep in the back, or the company that maintains the grid, or the manufacturer of the vehicle?”

Dial said the arrival of self-driving cars could reduce car accidents by 90 percent or more. Car companies quote similar numbers, citing statistics on crashes that involved human error.

“Imagine what that’s going to do to the repair shops,” Dial said.

According to online data from the Center for Advanced Public Safety, 1,040 people were killed in 962 auto crashes in Alabama in 2016.

Car companies quote numbers similar to Dial’s citing the number of accidents that are found to have human error as a factor.

But Dial and Whatley both acknowledge that when self-driving cars arrive, they’ll share the road — at least at first — with human drivers. Dial thinks big trucks will be the last allowed on the roadways; Whatley noted that a self-driving Budweiser beer truck completed a test run on Colorado’s interstate highways last year.

Committee members say they don’t have a timetable for producing legislation on autonomous cars.

“We need to start looking at these issues ahead of time, before they start becoming problems,” Whatley said.

©2017 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.). Visit The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.) at www.annistonstar.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 


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