Three Things to Know about Automated Vehicles

Automated vehicles (AVs) are a constant topic of conversation today, both in the transportation world and outside of it. Tech developers promise a road network with self-driving vehicles at affordable prices, with no congestion or time spent looking for a parking spot. We are not there yet (and won’t be for the foreseeable future), but nevertheless there are many interesting things happening in this area, some with impacts in the very short-term future.

To discuss these issues, Eno hosted a panel at its recent Capital Convergence conference on AVs and what recent federal guidelines mean for the industry. In a panel with current and former government officials, thought leaders, and representatives from the technologies companies, a number of topics around AVs were discussed. The main trend among the conversations was the need for consistency in regulations across different levels of government. And while the benefits from AVs will start to be seen on the road soon, more work is needed until fully autonomous vehicles are operating outside of test projects become a common sight on our roads.

There are three things that public officials and policymakers need to know about AVs:

 There are different levels of automation, some coming soon, some later

While conversations around AVs always seem to point towards a future where all vehicles are 100 percent automated, the reality is that there are different levels of automation that are and will be available in vehicles (The Society of Automotive Engineers developed five “levels of automation” that outline different capabilities of the technology). For now, only level 1 and 2 AV capabilities are consumer-ready. Level 2 can help prevent accidents by preemptively braking and lane centering, which could provide substantial safety benefits. The panelists at Capital Convergence agreed that there should be a push to put these technologies in place as soon as possible, but ensure that consumers understand their limitations.

(The Tesla crash in Florida was apparently caused by a driver thinking that his car was level 3, where he need not pay attention, when it was in fact level 2, where the driver must remain engaged and ready to react to changing road conditions or obstacles at a moment’s notice.)

As for level 3 and beyond, the pace of implementation and introduction on the roads will be slower. The most difficult aspects of higher level automation, such as driving in complex urban environments and not requiring the driver to fully pay attention, are still under development and will take a long time to be finished.

A national framework, rather than a state-based patchwork, is needed

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a set of guidelines about AVs in 2016. This document left some aspects, namely licensing and insurance, to the states. While this separation might be appropriate for the time being, a basic national framework is needed for AVs to truly become commonplace and avoid situations where a vehicle can operate in certain states and not in others. However, these regulations need to be flexible and performance based, as we don’t know how the technology will develop.

States have a regulatory role, but capital investments will be needed as well

While states currently have a role in such things as licensing operators and regulating insurance markets, there is another area where states and local authorities will play a significant role in the market for AVs: infrastructure. To function, AVs need a predictable environment. An example is the existence of well-delineated lanes and proper, machine-readable, signage on highways. Also, AVs might function better if there is connected infrastructure that can relay light phasing and other important driving information to vehicles on the roadway. But to prepare all hundreds of thousands of lanes-miles in the U.S. for that will require a considerable investment. All levels of government will need to be smart in their investment choices.

Overall, AVs are proceeding steadily towards implementation. For the foreseeable future only the lower levels of automation will be commonplace. The possibility of fully autonomous vehicles in our roads will depend on the existence of right regulatory framework and the right infrastructure.

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