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Navigating the Path to Autonomous and Connected Vehicles

As the technology continues to move forward, it raises important questions for governments about how they will prepare for and regulate high-tech vehicles.

There are definitive moments in history when technology exceeds our wildest dreams and faces us with one realization: The future is here. For many, that moment will come again with the onset of autonomous and connected vehicles.  

As technology companies like Google are moving full-speed ahead with autonomous car prototypes, it's likely that we will see these vehicles on the road in the next 20 years, if not sooner. (Google’s self-driving car is expected to be available for public release by 2020.) But as technology races ahead, it raises important questions about how government will implement, regulate and oversee these high-tech vehicles.

Public- and Private-Sector Partnerships

As with any new invention, the best way to learn about it is to test it. That’s exactly what the GoMentum Station is doing in Contra Costa, Calif., as it develops America’s largest and most comprehensive testing facility for autonomous and connected vehicles. Contra Costa Transportation Authority Executive Director Randy Iwasaki works closely with the GoMentum Station to understand how these vehicles can best support communities and what role government agencies will need to take to ensure that happens. When it comes down to it, he said, partnerships are key. 

“Critical to the success of such an ambitious program are effective and innovative partnering strategies and development of a sustainable multiyear business model for program sustainability," Iwasaki said. "This spans both public- and private-sector partners and must be developed in careful consideration of various interests and needs.
"At GoMentum Station our team is seizing on a historic opportunity to create a unique partnership model that is: comprehensive and inclusive of all modes of transportation; inclusive of both private- and public-sector initiatives and investments to drive economic growth and innovations; predicated on strategic partnership with multiple automobile manufacturers, [original equipment manufacturers] and first tier suppliers, technology companies, communication companies, researchers and academia, public agencies and other partners; and capitalizes on the Bay Area technology base and culture of creativity. The proposed partnership with private and public sectors is a critical pillar of our strategy, which will help with redefining mobility for decades to come.”
Government agencies will also need to address key logistical issues, like infrastructure accommodations, to ensure that autonomous vehicles operate safely on roadways. According to Iwasaki, it’s not about changing roads but making them smarter. “Autonomous cars by themselves don’t need much for infrastructure accommodations because they are expected to sense the environment/surroundings as you have seen in several tests by Honda, Google and others across the nation,” he said.  
The biggest area that needs to be addressed is determining how these vehicles will communicate with their surroundings, he added. “In order to achieve the expected benefits of the new technologies in safety, efficiency and mobility, we need connectivity. This means connectivity of vehicles to vehicles, vehicles to infrastructure and vehicles to devices where the public sector is also playing a major role,” Iwasaki said. “At GoMentum Station we believe the [connected vehicle/autonomous vehicle] is integral to each other in order to achieve the full benefits of new technologies. For this reason, all federal initiatives are important and need to be expedited. Our infrastructure needs to adapt to the new reality with the installation of roadside and highway instrumentation and communication technologies. Massive deployment of dedicated short-range communication, or DSRC, in 5.9 GHz spectrums is an example of needed infrastructure accommodations.”

Safety and Liability

For many, a car that drives itself brings up safety concerns. However, experts are forecasting that autonomous and connected vehicles will drastically reduce the number of traffic accidents and casualties. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were more than 32,000 U.S. motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2014. Since the majority of traffic accidents are a result of human error, autonomous vehicles present an opportunity to remove the possibility of human error, therefore decreasing the likelihood of accidents.
Case in point: Google recently released information on its self-driving cars, reporting that the vehicles have been involved in 12 minor traffic accidents on public roads since 2009. All of those accidents were reportedly caused by a either a manual driver or the driver of another vehicle. 
While safety levels may increase, the question remains: Who takes the blame if an autonomous vehicle gets into an accident? For many involved in the current testing stage, it’s too soon to come to an answer. 
Christopher Puchalsky, deputy director of transportation planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, works with a cross-sectional team of regional experts to address current and future planning issues. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, he noted that before logistical issues, such as infrastructure updates, are addressed, overarching issues like liability should be sorted out. “I believe that there’s significant nontechnical issues that we need to figure out — that is the bigger challenge,” Puchalsky said. “The liability is the elephant in the room. The liability issues will probably take longer to work themselves out and that will need to be addressed on a national level.”

Policy and Law

Questions of liability also bring up larger issues surrounding policy and law for autonomous and connected vehicles. Since driver responsibility is essentially being taken off the table, many see a large gap between current driving laws and future driving capabilities. New areas will need to be considered, including: Will there be a speed limit? And who will be allowed to ride in autonomous vehicles? 
While these questions haven’t been addressed on a nationwide scale yet, autonomous cars are slowly making their way into some states’ driving policies. For example, in 2012 Nevada passed a law allowing the first autonomous car to be licensed to operate on public roads. According to the Nevada law, all autonomous vehicles will have a red license plate with an infinity symbol and require one person behind the wheel and one passenger. 
As of 2013, four states allow autonomous car testing on public roads — Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan — as well as the District of Columbia. Under Florida, California and Nevada laws, the driver of an autonomous vehicle is considered the “operator,” meaning there doesn’t necessarily need to be anyone driving the car, but could instead mean a person engages the technology (i.e., sends the car to pick someone up). And in Florida, legislation notes that liability falls to the party that installed the autonomous technology on the vehicle. 
While it may be more than a decade until autonomous and connected vehicles are the norm on public roadways, the movement to high-tech cars is undeniable. As popularity and accessibility grow, so too will decisions regarding liability, policies and laws directed at safeguarding the public and the new autonomous vehicle industry. Until then, drivers can look forward to a more carefree ride as the development of self-driving cars continues to move into high gear.