Road to widespread use of driverless cars will go through states and their legislatures, with Michigan leading way right now in Midwest

Baby boomers will think of “The Jetsons” while Gen-Xers may remember the creepy “Johnny Cab” from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall.” Millennials and their children will probably take automated vehicles as a matter of course.

Legislators must think about them with, and without, that dash of Hollywood: Automated vehicles are coming, so how will they merge into states’ traffic flows? What can the technology do today, what changes will it make tomorrow, and how to draft laws taking all that into account?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Michigan paces the Midwest. According to The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University’s law school, it’s one of four states plus the District of Columbia — and the only one in the Midwest — that have enacted laws regulating the use of automated vehicles. <--break->

Michigan’s 2013 laws (Public Acts 231 and 251) allowing for testing of automated vehicles included lifting liability for manufacturers “unless the defect from which the damages resulted was present in the vehicle when it was manufactured” were among the first in the nation.

Now the Michigan Legislature is poised to go further with measures that would clear the way for additional road testing; networking of sensors on vehicles, bridges and roadway fixtures; and making any attempt to hack and take over an automated vehicle the criminal felony equivalent of carjacking — punishable by up to life in prison.

“We want everybody to know just how serious we are about this,” says Michigan Sen. Mike Kowall, author of SB 927. A companion bill, SB 928, would add the punishment for “Access Electronic Systems of Motor Vehicle to Obtain Data or Control of the Vehicle” to Michigan’s criminal code.

The idea behind the new proposals is to set requirements for different levels of vehicle automation — from partly automated systems like anti-lock brakes to fully autonomous vehicles that don’t require input from a driver (see below) — along with guides for automakers to know what benchmarks they’ll have to meet for certification at each level, Kowall says.

“It lets the manufacturer set their own timelines … and gets government out of the way,” he adds. “We’ve led the world in auto tech for a hundred and some-odd years, and I’d like us to lead for another hundred some-odd years.”

At the other end of Lake Superior, Minnesota legislators are considering HF 3325 and SF 2569, which would create a task force on how automated vehicles could be designed for use by, and serve the needs of, people with disabilities. 

The task force’s findings, which would be reported to the Minnesota Legislature by early next year, would include recommendations for a pilot program. As of late April, this legislation (along with $25,000 to get the task force started) was an item in the supplemental transportation budget in conference committee, says Minnesota Sen. Matt Schmit.

While the technology presents interesting issues in and of itself, it can also address public policy changes and challenges, Schmit says. By examining how automated vehicles could increase mobility for the elderly and people with disabilities, Minnesota can add to, rather than repeat, the national conversation about them, he adds.

“We don’t want to have a [task force] that looks at something that’s been done before,” Schmit says. 
“Time is of the essence now because we’re seeing this emerging technology develop, and if we want Minnesota to contribute to the national discussion, we have to act now.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, chief sponsor of HF 3325, says the task force would also examine how automated vehicles would fit into the everyday flow of traffic. It’s an issue that’s personal — and bipartisan — for him: Hamilton has multiple sclerosis and occasionally uses a wheelchair. 

So when a Democratic-colleague referred constituents to him regarding automated vehicles helping their son, because Republicans control the House and a majority member could advance the idea, he was ready.

“I sat down with them and asked, ‘Is the technology here yet?’ and they said, ‘Rod, did you know that over a million miles have already been logged on automated vehicles?’ They’re educating me on this.”

Hamilton says that talking in town halls with constituents who are disabled or elderly further taught him that if they can’t drive to the grocery store or a bowling alley, and no one is able to drive them instead, they’re stuck. Perhaps this is a problem automated vehicles could solve, he says.

Then, he adds, conversations with law enforcement officials raised other possibilities, Could automated vehicles someday be used for transporting prisoners, thus freeing up the driver? Could their use potentially eliminate driving under the influence?

The technology is “here and it’s now, and I just see so many benefits.” “It’s so new, and with it being so new, there’s some reluctance, if you will, to grasp the full concept,” Hamilton says. “That’s where it will be very useful to have all stakeholders come to the table and help us get familiar and comfortable with the issue.”

What is automation?

Technically speaking, if you have anti-lock brakes or an auto-warning backup system, then you’re already driving an automated vehicle. It’s the degree of automation that matters. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has set a five-level definition:

  • Level 0 — No automation: “The driver is in complete or sole control of the primary vehicle controls — brake, steering, throttle, and motive power — at all times.”

  • Level 1 — Function-specific automation; i.e., electronic stability or anti-lock brakes.

  • Level 2 — Combined function automation of two or more primary control systems “designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of those functions.”

  • Level 3 — Limited self-driving automation; the driver can “cede full control of all safety-critical functions” under certain conditions, but is “expected to be available for occasional control” with enough transition time.

  • Level 4 — Full self-driving automation; the vehicle is in full control of all systems and monitors roadway conditions for the entire trip. Passengers provide origin and destination information, but are not expected to take control during the trip.

This five-level system is part of the federal government’s approach to automated vehicles, outlined by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in January 2016 at the North American International Auto Show. That program includes $3.9 billion over 10 years to fund pilot projects; update federal policies; and review current regulations, best practices guidelines and even model legislation for states to consider.

That makes sense to Sharon Feigon, executive director of the Chicago-based Shared Use Mobility Center and member of the Illinois Governor’s Electric Vehicle Advisory Council, who says a regulatory framework will be needed to encourage shared use of automated vehicles.

“A lot of the regulatory stuff will have to come at the federal level because it’s managing the autos,” Feigon says, “and the safety stuff really needs to be consistent. “A car goes from one state to another, so you have to think about the whole.”

Devilish policy details

Bryant Walker Smith, who researches and writes extensively about the intersection between governments and automated vehicle technology, offers advice for any state government in a paper published on March 17, “How Governments Can Promote Automated Driving.” Among the myriad suggestions:

  • First, designate a “point person” with the authority to coordinate between state agencies, between the governor and legislature, and between state and federal governments, and be a liaison between the public and private sectors. This position would be the “go to” person whom anyone could contact about automated vehicle policy.

  • Next, at both the state and local levels, “government actors should advance understanding of the relevant technologies, applications and activities.” Governments should also “cultivate broader expertise with respect to complex technical and social systems” — demonstrating through policies an understanding of questions, problems and solutions associated with technological revolutions.

  • Moreover, “governments should ensure their planning processes begin to account for automated driving. Long-term assumptions should be revisited for land-use plans, infrastructure projects, building codes, bonds, and budgets.” For example, a fully automated highway might need less right-of-way because networked computer systems controlling traffic flows and vehicle intervals might be able to pack more traffic into less space. A mostly or fully automated traffic flow would also affect building and zoning code parking requirements and public transit usage, among other effects.

“Finally, governments should develop break-the-glass plans for responding to automated driving incidents.
“Who will respond, and how? What evidence will need to be preserved, and how?” asks Smith, who is an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina and an affiliate scholar at The Center for Internet and Society.

Also, he adds, how would officials at any level of government address the public’s concern and/or anger once a high-profile crash occurs?

“A government that addresses these issues proactively and ultimately positively signals its credibility as a potential technological partner,” Smith says. Other than Michigan and Minnesota, not much has been done yet legislatively in the Midwest on issues surrounding automated vehicles.

South Dakota in 2014 tabled SB 139, which would have authorized testing of automated vehicles.
In March 2015, North Dakota approved HB 1065, which authorized a legislative management study of automated vehicle testing. That study, though, ultimately was not among those funded for the state’s current interim.

Wisconsin senators in 2014 failed to pass SB 80, which proposed to allow automated vehicles if a properly licensed human driver were present and had motor vehicle liability coverage of at least $5 million. Under that legislative proposal, too, an automated vehicle would need to have an indicator that it was in automated mode and would automatically record data at least 30 seconds before a collision.

Not everyone is convinced that automated vehicles will have quite the impact their proponents claim.
Steve Schlickman, president of the transportation consultancy Schlickman & Associates, and former director of both the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Regional Transportation Authority, says he detects no concern about automated vehicles in most Midwestern states.

“I think everyone’s wondering whether this is going to explode into a huge share of the market, and most people feel not, [that] it’s not going to,” Schlickman says.

Automation also open door to alternative revenue source: tax on vehicle miles traveled

A mix of new technology and new laws might change not only the cars we drive, but how we pay to maintain our roads. While some states — including Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and South Dakota — have raised their fuel taxes, the U.S. Congress has not raised the federal gas tax since 1993 and signaled during passage of the FAST Act that it won’t for the foreseeable future.

So how about a mileage, or “VMT” (Vehicle Miles Traveled), tax instead?

Millions of drivers already use electronic tolling, so the technology isn’t that big a conceptual leap; and by taxing actual miles driven, advocates say it’s an accurate, flexible “user fee” that has the potential to change driving habits and create more efficient use of roads and highways.

VMT trends

As Illinois legislators learned last month, however, propose a mileage/VMT tax without proper preparation and the first, last and only cry you’re likely to hear from voters and in news coverage is “Big Brother!”  SB 3279, which would have created a VMT tax, was introduced on Feb. 19. By April 22, after public and editorial uproar, the bill was returned to the state Senate’s Committee on Assignments, effectively killing it.

That doesn’t surprise Jim Whitty, a partner at D’Artagnan Consulting who joined the firm this year after overseeing Oregon’s Road User Fee Task Force and helping launch the state’s year-old mileage fee pilot program.

“For us, it took 15 years” of public discussion to build knowledge and comfort with the concept, and then a task force to focus on how a pilot program would work, Whitty says. “It’s a methodical, step-by-step process. If you don’t do that, you see what happened in Illinois. Politicians can’t move that quickly.”

Oregon’s pilot program, OReGo, is administered by the Oregon Department of Transportation. It seeks to enroll 5,000 drivers of cars and light-duty vehicles for a mileage-based fee of 1.5 cents per mile, for which they get a credit on fuel taxes paid at the pump.

Drivers create an online account by choosing an account manager and providing their Vehicle Identification Number, odometer reading and license plate. Once participating motorists get their electronic “dongle” in the mail, they plug it into their car.

Currently two providers along with ODOT serve as administrators, each offering different features such as GPS enabling and differentiation between in-state and out-of-state mileage, among others.

California’s four-year pilot program is looking for 5,000 volunteers to test the technology and mechanics of mileage fee models — ranging from actual miles driven to a flat fee allowing unlimited mileage for a month or year; to automated reporting with or without GPS (GPS could differentiate between in-state and out-of-state driving, but give constant location information).

Whitty says Oregon’s law is designed to limit what information is collected and what can be done with that information. No dissemination is allowed without consent, and mileage data must be destroyed after 30 days.

“Legally this kind of calms the issue down,” he says, adding that the American Civil Liberties Union was supportive of what legislators ultimately approved. “That really helps with a lot of people.” 

Oregon and California are also among 11 states — including North Dakota — that joined the Western Road Usage Charge Consortium to jointly study mileage/VMT fees. (South Dakota has been invited, but hasn’t joined yet.)

“I haven’t seen that kind of joining together or sharing together in the Midwest at all,” Whitty says.



Stateline Midwest: May 20162.42 MB