New Report Warns of Pitfalls when Autonomous and Conventional Cars Share the Road

GHSA autonomous Uber

Self-driving cars may one day rule the roadways, but that day is decades away. In the meantime, a new report is addressing the need to better prepare for the intervening years in which automated vehicles share the road with regular human drivers.

State laws need to be adjusted, studies need to be performed on how the presence of automated vehicles changes the behavior of human motorists, police officers need to know how to treat autonomous cars and their occupants, and motorists need training on self-driving features, said the report, Autonomous Vehicles Meet Human Drivers, issued Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

All of those topics need to be tackled as automation arises within the next five years, but they could remain in play throughout a transition period that could continue for at least three decades and maybe forever, according to the report’s author, James Hedlund, a former official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“That’s a real worry,” he said. “How do these two things react with each other? If you ask car enthusiasts, they always want to drive themselves. So this will be around for a long time, and there’s education and learning needed for both autonomous-vehicle programmers and real drivers.”

“I don’t know how you regulate this well. It’s a very complicated game and moving forward very rapidly.”
-— James Hedlund, former NHTSA official

Some of the open questions he poses are well-established quandaries, such as determining whether self-driving cars must always obey the speed limit, even if doing so presents a nuisance or a danger to other cars on the roadway. Other pitfalls are more complex, such as how police officers and lawmakers might handle human motorists who bully or take advantage of self-driving systems programmed to leave extra room on the road or move conservatively.

Because of such potential problems, some automakers are either removing labeling from their autonomous vehicles during their public-road tests or opting not to add it in the first place. But some states, such as Nevada, require specialty license plates that denote the autonomous nature of the vehicles, and those plates and other markings might be especially important for police officers once self-driving cars are in widespread use.

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“It’s an issue of officer safety,” Hedlund said. “On a crash investigation, for example, can emergency responders and police tell if a vehicle is autonomous or not? Can they tell if systems are turned off or still engaged? And how do you make a traffic stop? Something as simple as that.”

States will play a major role in solving these issues, and each needs to do so in a way that tweaks existing state laws to facilitate the arrival of autonomous cars. There’s a law on the books in New York, for example, that requires drivers to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.

At the same time, many industry leaders and transportation officials—and this GHSA report—caution state leaders not to rush into legislation. Written for an audience made up of employees at state highway offices, departments of motor vehicles, and departments of transportation, the report warns states to “resist the temptation” to pass laws that, while intended to encourage testing or deployment, could wind up hindering implementation or be quickly outdated amid changing technology.

nuTonomy autonomous car

That’d be the case in California, where leaders in the self-driving industry once clamored for legal parameters for testing, only to later find those parameters more stringent than they’d like. Now the industry is wary of encouraging any state laws, for fear a jumble of state-by-state laws with similar intent but varying nuances will make it difficult or impossible for them to deploy cars subject to a uniform set of regulations or standards.

Historically, the federal government, which issued its own model state guidance as part of the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy established in September, has regulated issues surrounding vehicle performance and safety. State governments, on the other hand, have regulated licensing requirements and rules of the road. In an autonomous age, in which drivers are the vehicles themselves and not human beings, those roles may blur in a way that has yet to be determined.

“The feds are good at regulating hardware and technology, that’s what the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards do, but how good are they at regulating the software in autonomous vehicles that senses the road and makes decisions,” Hedlund said. “I don’t know how you regulate this well . . . it’s a very complicated game and moving forward very rapidly. It’s difficult for the federal and state governments to react to a situation changing so rapidly. Everyone needs to be flexible.”

Pete Bigelow is the Transportation, Technology, and Mobility Editor at Car and Driver. He can be reached via email at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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