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Autonomous Vehicles Have Some Regulatory Roadblocks to Navigate

State and federal lawmakers have their eye on the emerging technology, but questions remain about who is better suited to regulate it.

(TNS) — As John Paul drove to Stamford in mid-October in yet another autumn deluge, he kept his hands tight on the wheel despite the car crammed with the latest technologies to keep it in a safe cocoon within its own lane.

As a traffic safety manager for AAA, Paul knows there’s no substitute for an alert driver — but he is in a better position than most to hazard a guess as to when that substitute may surface, and says the day could be coming sooner than anyone might think.

Paul was among the speakers at a AAA conference on self-driving vehicles held Oct. 12 at the University of Connecticut Stamford and aired on CT-N. The city is in the early vanguard of municipalities to volunteer to test autonomous vehicles on its roadways, with tight controls in place to reduce the possibility of mishaps.

The possibilities inherent in the technology have beguiled advocates and fueled opposition from others, particularly so since March when a self-driving Uber vehicle hit a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., in a fatal accident that dominated headlines. For his part, Paul told conference attendees that he took no chances this month en route to Stamford.

“I was driving (to Stamford) today with a car that had advanced cruise control and lane-departure warning and … correction; and on my ride here, it got really rainy,” Paul said. “The road markings sort of disappeared under the water (and) the car never sensed that I was drifting out of the lane. So as good as the technology is, … what’s really important is that engaged driver.”

Hurdles to overcome

A year after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to promote the advancement of self-driving, autonomous vehicles, a U.S. Senate bill called AV Start set technical and safety standards for a new generation of cars and trucks, and exemptions on some of those requirements when people are engaged behind the wheel.

As carmakers and startups move ahead with competing versions of the technology, the industry hopes to see a single set of rules in the United States, with states expected to push back at any federal law that would preempt state or local regulations.

“States rightly feel … that their standards are sometimes more protective, and therefore more effective, than federal standards, which unfortunately often go to the lowest common denominator,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., speaking at the same conference. “(We) want to make sure that we get it right, because this bill … will preempt and preclude — at least to some extent — the safety measures that are adopted at a local level.”

Autonomous vehicles are designed with sensors and software to follow road contours; avoid other vehicles, objects, bikers and pedestrians; adjust to unsafe conditions like precipitation, ice and fog; and even anticipate the possibility of danger from developing situations on the road ahead.

Proponents of the technology say automating vehicle travel could sharply reduce highway deaths — the U.S. Department of Transportation counted 37,133 fatalities on the roads last year — by taking the wheel away from people who might be distracted, under the influence while driving or otherwise failing to react to avoidable dangers.

Getting from point A to B

The panel’s speakers included state Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, who is leading a state panel examining how Connecticut should prepare for any new era of self-driving cars, with a report due this January. Stamford and Windsor Locks have expressed interest in pilot tests of autonomous vehicles, with the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management seeking two more municipalities to do so.

“To me, it is going to be a disruptive industry, and it can be disruptive in a good way or it can be disruptive in a bad way,” Leone said. “We have a ways to go; we still have to have a way how to anticipate all the upcoming hurdles that might be there, but at the end of the day, those are all hurdles that can be overcome.”

In advance of the AV Start bill’s outcome, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued this month an updated guidance for industry and governmental agencies on how autonomous vehicle and infrastructure development could move forward, while continuing to collect input from the public through December. In the meantime, companies are driving forward with varying iterations of the technology, including major automakers like General Motors, dominant technology companies like Google or startups like

“We’re a company that helps human drivers get from A to B more safely, securely and effectively,” said Avery Ash, head of autonomous mobility for Inrix, a Kirkland, Wash.-based company whose software provides congestion data for major traffic apps. “What happens to us as a company with that driver removed from the equation? And I think that’s the same question that a lot of states and a lot of cities and a lot of consumers are asking themselves today.”

©2018 The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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