The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

So in the perhaps not-so-distant future, you settle into your autonomous self-driving vehicle and think maybe, since you don't have to actually drive, this might be a good time to dig into that copy of War and Peace you acquired in college.

autonomous vehicleThat time may be coming, but given the current state of the technology if you get much past finding out that Anna Pavlova has had a cough for some days, you might think about taking a glance at the roadway. 

Autonomous vehicles were in the driver's seat during the second day of NCSL's State Transportation Leaders Symposium last week in Denver. Lawmakers, researchers and administrators from both the public and private sectors engaged in what exactly an autonomous vehicle is, what regulatory structure is needed and what kind of infrastructure states need to fully utilize the benefits and cope with the challenges of the coming autonomous vehicle revolution.

Americans are wary of ceding full control of their ride, said Jennifer Ryan, state relations director of the American Automobile Association. More than three of four persons surveyed by AAA said they were "afraid" to ride in a self-driving car and half felt "less safe" sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle. Among women, the numbers are even higher, said Ryan. Still, 59 percent of respondents said they wanted advanced driver assistance such as automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, self-parking and lane departure warning.

Proponents of automated vehicles stress the potential for reducing the more than 37,000 deaths in traffic crashes each year, 94 percent of which involved human error.

Austin Brown, executive director of the Policy Institute of Energy, Environment and the Economy at the University of California Davis, sketched an overview of automated vehicles.

An array of different kinds of sensors see the world in front, around and behind the vehicle, he said. The sensors are able to distinguish between a tree, a person, a bicycle and a car; they are rangefinders that can provide a map of the terrain around the vehicle, sensing speed bumps or walls, for instance, using radar and sonar. After sensing its surroundings, the vehicle makes a decision to act.

"All that takes a ton of computing," he said. "You basically have a super-computer in your car."

The Society of Automotive Engineers ranks automation levels from driver assistance (system assists with steering and acceleration/braking) to partial automation (driver monitors object recognition), conditional automation (driver intervenes in case of emergency conditions), high automation/self-driving (driver not expected to intervene except for system failure) and full automation in which the system performs all driving modes; these vehicles often do not have steering wheels or accelerators. Public surveys, he said, tend to over-estimate the automation of vehicles.

Business models for autonomous vehicles are "almost unbounded," Brown said, citing car sharing, car pooling, ride sharing, ride hailing as well as low-speed shuttles and fleets of semi-trailers traveling in a convoy with no human drivers.

Both Brown and Ryan emphasized the need for much better public education if autonomous vehicles are going to gain widespread consumer acceptance.

Campaigns that emphasize safety, a common set of terminology, a collaborative approach between automakers and consumer groups and a harmonization of laws are all needed, said Ryan.

As for legislators, Brown advised it is "a unique time to get a policy framework in place to get the benefits from automated vehicles and minimize unintended consequences," mentioning safety, congestion, pollution and equity as important issues related to automated,automated vehicles.

"The role of public policy," he said, "is to help us do the things that are hard but are still a good idea." 

Responding to an audience question about the future of the technology, Brown said, "My experience with automakers is they view this as an existential challenge. If they succeed, they will be a winner. If they don't they will fail. They all want to have the coolest-sounding system. But it is more important to get this right overall. If the public doesn't accept the technology then they have wasted billions of dollars in research."

Check out NCSL's resources on autonomous vehicles.

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL blog.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.