Self-driving vehicles could spark big changes in roadways, travel, law

Self-driving vehicles will be Self Driveon the road sooner than you think—and their presence could spark widespread and transformative changes. Two U of M researchers gave a glimpse of these changes in a session at Minnesota’s Transportation Conference in March.

Companies from GM to Google are developing self-driving vehicle technology, said Adeel Lari, research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Much of the current discussion focuses on the systems’ promise to eliminate driver error and avoid crashes, injuries, and fatalities. But there are many more implications, he said.

For example, hyperlinked self-driving vehicles would be able to follow each other closely on narrower lanes—enabling changes to long-standing roadway designs and increasing capacity. “Could it be,” Lari asked, “that we have too much infrastructure?”

Other impacts, however, could increase travel. The elderly, people with disabilities, and children would gain mobility, Lari explained, and commuters who could sleep or work en route might choose to live further away from their jobs.

State and local coffers could see some impacts. More people might forgo car ownership and join a shared fleet service, reducing vehicle tax and license revenues, Lari said. Revenues from speeding and parking tickets would also drop. (On the flip side, enforcement costs would fall as well.)

Industries also wouldn’t be untouched. Smaller, alternative types of cars could become popular. The freight industry, needing to pay fewer drivers, could make more frequent shipments with lighter trucks (and do less damage to pavements). “And a taxi driver could be a thing of the past,” he said.

About a century ago, Lari noted, people doubted that Americans would switch from horses to cars; today, people question whether drivers will cede control to autonomous vehicles. “But change happens,” he said, “and it’s going to come very, very fast.”

Frank Douma, associate director of the Humphrey School’s State and Local Policy Program, then looked deeper into the legal and privacy implications of self-driving vehicles. “Suppose something goes wrong,” he said. “How do you handle liability? Who is at fault—the driver or the vehicle?”  

Current law is unclear, he said, but as vehicles assume more control, lawsuits are likely to shift from the driver to the manufacturer. Plaintiffs could also target vehicle owners for failing to maintain a vehicle adequately.

Given this shifting ground, Minnesota law may need attention. It explicitly defines the driver as having physical control and states that “any person driving a vehicle shall be liable.” As technology moves forward, Douma said, “the law needs to move with it.”

One way to help clarify liability is to use data from a vehicle’s black box, but this raises another issue: privacy. States offer varying levels of privacy protection, Douma said, and the courts have been wrestling with the issue. Protections could include setting limits on the data collected and how they can be used.

“There are legal issues to deal with, but the Iaw will not be the obstacle that keeps self-driving vehicles off the road,” he concluded.

The conference, held March 4–6 in Bloomington, attracted more than 1,400 people. CTS managed the planning and delivery of the conference and was also a sponsor. A complete list of sponsors can be found on the conference website.