Sit back, relax, and enjoy the drive: An update on autonomous vehicles

By Mary Ebeling

Since we last wrote about driverless cars in December, several states have taken a detailed look at legislation to phase in operation of this new type of vehicle. These new laws focus on testing, safety, and operations. Conversations addressing the thorny issues around liability are only just beginning. During the legislative process, important considerations include: striking a balance between regulation and innovation; working with manufacturers and public interests to hear and address concerns; and considering the importance of regulatory consistency between the states.  To address these considerations, the Council of State Governments issued a report providing assistance in developing policies and legislation.

As the technology allowing autonomous vehicles becomes more feasible, states including Michigan and California have passed legislation regulating the testing and use of driverless cars. These laws focus on ensuring a human sits in the “driver’s” seat at all times to take over in case of a failure of the system. The laws also restrict the use of these vehicles on public roads for testing purposes only.

Autonomous vehicle technology will also improve operations of transit systems. Regardless of road capacity improvements offered by autonomous vehicles, metro areas will continue to require transit to move large numbers of people in densely populated urban settings. Autonomous vehicle technology offers benefits to transit through improvements like automated platform docking at bus rapid transit stations and lane keeping technologies, which promise improvements in transit service delivery. Autonomous vehicles might also assist transit agencies in addressing the classic first and last mile challenge, shuttling riders from lower density areas to transit hubs.

Although Google claims cars equipped with its “autonomous driving system” will be on the road by 2018, major manufacturers like Nissan, Mercedes, and Renault are shooting for 2020 for introducing partially autonomous cars to the market. Others think it will likely take until at least 2025. The jury is still out on exactly when we will see more fully autonomous vehicles on the road. In the interim, enough questions remain about driverless cars and buses that it seems prudent to closely monitor the technology as it develops and to carefully consider any new state legislation addressing use of these vehicles based on new advances.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.