Policy perspectives on connected and autonomous vehicles

Following Graphic of autonomous vehiclesPhoto: Shutterstock the conference luncheon presentation, Bryant Walker Smith joined a panel of experts in a question-and-answer session that explored technical issues and broader policy perspectives of connected and autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are probably legal in Minnesota. What would it take to remove the “probably”?

“Minnesota laws can lend themselves to an interpretation that there could be a problem because of definitional issues: that the driver must be a person, for example,” said Frank Douma, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“The issue is what happens when something goes wrong. If something goes wrong in a partially or fully automated vehicle, you will look for what went wrong to cause the crash, not whether there was a person in the driver’s seat. If a technology failure is the cause, the liability will be with the manufacturer, not the driver. So you could redefine the driver or operator to be something other than a person. NHTSA is willing to consider the vehicle itself as the driver in certain situations.”

Which connected vehicle technology applications might be deployed in Minnesota in the next five years?

“It really depends on the progress in technology and legislation and regulation,” said Imran Hayee, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “I think that the second part is more important because the technology is there and could be used if there is a political will. It has been almost confirmed that connected vehicle technology could save many lives, and if this is implemented…safety applications will probably come first—electronic braking systems, do-not-pass warnings, collision warning systems, and so on.”

What implications will automated vehicles have on our existing revenue sources?

“Our major source of transportation revenue is the gas tax, which is essentially a distance-based tax,” said Ken Buckeye, project manager of the Transportation Finance Advisory Committee at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “To the degree that automated vehicles are electric or use alternative fuels, we might collect less tax. If we want to replicate [the gas tax effectively], we have to think about how that works with electric and automated vehicles. For example, automated vehicles will come with a lot of embedded technology that could enable us to collected distance-based charges in an efficient manner.” 

How are connected and autonomous vehicles impacting planning efforts?

“All of the assumptions we have about this technology could change; we acknowledge that and can adapt,” Smith said. “We also tend to focus on the near term and immediate problems we can solve: let’s change the traffic code and think about infrastructure. Those are areas where private developers will have an incentive to do the heavy lifting. Developers don’t have the incentive in more difficult planning tasks, such as future land-use patterns and environmental impacts. That’s where the government does need to do more heavy lifting. It will require humanists and social scientists thinking about what we want our society to look like.”

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