Under the leadership of Gov. John Hickenlooper and Shailen Bhatt, the former executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, Colorado has rushed to embrace self-driving cars.

Safety Lab: Patchwork Rules Leave Public at Risk

Colorado and a few other U.S. states are opening their roads to the future of automotive transportation but at a risk that may be too high, one of the nation’s most prominent safety laboratories has said. Autonomous technology for cars, pickups, and semis, still a developing technology, lack the governmental safeguards needed to protect the public at large, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued policy guidelines for putting autonomous cars and trucks on the road but hasn’t taken any steps to regulate the self-driving vehicles; a bill addressing the issue was recently stalled in Congress, IIHS said in a special Status Update dedicated to the autopiloted vehicles.

Senate Bill 1885, called the AV START Act, would preempt the laws of all states, including Colorado, that regulate autonomous cars and trucks, IIHS states, dramatically removing limits on how many of the vehicles should be exempted from federal safety standards each year. The situation is a standoff between the influence of consumer safety advocates who oppose giving the automotive industry carte blanche and the influence of carmakers and technology firms who want to unleash their innovations.

The safety proponents who say the bill fails to safeguard the public and require industry accountability want Congress to wait until the National Transportation Safety Board finishes investigating a number of recent fatal auto accidents involving self-driving cars. They want the proposed law to curtail safety standards exemptions and to increase federal oversight, keeping state laws such as Colorado’s in place.

The groups backing the developing autonomous systems want the law passed quickly because of the increased mobility and safety the advocates believe autopilot systems will bring.

Colorado Ahead of Other States

Under the leadership of Gov. John Hickenlooper and Shailen Bhatt, the former executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, Colorado has rushed to embrace self-driving cars. Under their leadership, the department established its RoadX program to foster all types of transportation innovation, which, in their view, could help the state cope with its growing population and over-capacity roadways. Department officials frequently quoted estimates that the new vehicles might one day lower traffic accidents by 94 percent and reduce traffic fatalities by 80 percent. The idea is based on the notion that human error causes the vast majority of accidents and replacing us flesh-and-blood drivers with autopilot systems would yield commensurate results.

In October 2016, CDOT cooperated with ride-sharing service Uber’s experimental arm to test an autopilot-driven semi-tractor trailer that carried a load of Budweiser beer 120 miles from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. Colorado State Patrol cruisers escorted the robotic truck, and a technician road in the truck cabin in case something went wrong.

State Lawmakers Gave Their Blessing

In June 2017, Hickenlooper signed a bill into law that officially opened the roads to auto-piloted vehicles, Joey Bunch of ColoradoPolitics.com reported.

Senate Bill 213 declared that automated vehicles were subject to state law, not local regulation, and, if a car or truck meets other state and federal codes, then it is legal to operate anywhere in Colorado. The law requires experimental vehicles being tested in the state to be approved by the Colorado State Patrol and CDOT. State senators Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, sponsored the bill. Representatives Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, and Faith Winter, D-Westminster, sponsored the House version. Senator Hill said:

“Driverless cars are just the beginning. … Here in Colorado, we’ve always been bold enough to pioneer new policies, technologies, and ideas. Hard work, dedication, and the will to conquer new frontiers inspires every Coloradan. With this legislation we send a clear message that Colorado plans to remain on the forefront of job creation and cutting edge ideas.”

States Offer Degrees of Permission

According to IIHS, Washington, D.C. and 31 states have addressed automated cars and trucks with a law or executive order. Of those, 11 states authorized study of the autonomous systems, defined “key terms,” or allocated money to research the vehicles. Eleven states and the U.S. capital have allowed full deployment, while nine states have authorized testing.

Some states enacted significant restrictions on anyone developing, testing, or simply operating the vehicles on public roads, while others, including Colorado, are inviting testing and usage with little legal oversight or restrictions. Four of the states are requiring operators to carry at least $5 million in insurance. A few of the states require operators to share safety plans and research results with state regulators.

Twelve states are allowing testing without a human in the vehicle to take over if something goes wrong. In March of this year, one of those states, Arizona, was the location of a highly publicized fatal accident that grabbed the attention of public, industry, and government safety regulators across the United States. That automated car had a human driver behind the wheel, but according to recent police reports, she may have been watching a television show on her smartphone when the vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian on a darkened street, news organization AzCentral.com reported.

Nine states don’t require operators to be licensed, IIHS says.

Safety Institute Wants Data to Be Public

IIHS, which is always researching and publishing scientific and analytical studies on vehicle safety, is urging states and federal agencies to require autonomous vehicle developers to publicize their information on every crash on public roads, no matter how severe.

The safety organization also wants the federal government to keep track of the automated systems in a central database. With the information, insurers, researchers, regulators, and the public can discover how automation factors into their overall crash statistics, threatening everyone’s safety. The proposed database would be searchable by vehicle identification numbers (VINs). Manufacturers don’t have to report autopilot and crash-avoidance systems with standard VIN logs.

A Call for Future Regulations

As automated vehicles require it, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants exemptions to federal safety rules on a case-by-case basis, IIHS says. If the AV Start Act, that stalled U.S. Senate bill, is ever passed, it will require the federal agency to set up specific safety standards that all new automated vehicles would have to meet. One such standard proposed by IIHS would be to require new vehicles to install crash data recorders, akin to the “black box” flight recorders used to investigate plane crashes.

To paint an example of the lack of regulation going too far, the safety institute points to the example of General Motors, which plans to eliminate steering wheels and brake and accelerator pedals in its planned Cruise AV model, which was profiled in Popular Science magazine and MotorAuthority.com. The Detroit automaker asked the government to exempt 2,500 of these cars without manual controls, from more than a dozen safety standards imposed on ordinary cars and trucks. It’s unknown if they will be approved.

Until the government imposes tighter regulations, David Harkey, IIHS president, says the automobile industry needs to take sufficient precautions when operating automated cars and trucks on public roads, and it should share all its crash information with the public. Harkey said:

“We don’t want to hamstring the development of autonomous vehicles but do want to ensure that all motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians sharing the road are protected.”

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