Are we ready for automated vehicles? No.

Governors call for greater coordination on safety issues

by Hal Mattern

Like it or not, automated vehicles are a fact of life, and their presence on America’s highways is increasing. But are motorists, not to mention police and first responders, ready to share the road with driverless cars?

A white paper released by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) suggests they are not, and it recommends various strategies for delivering safety messages to the public and preparing the criminal justice community to mitigate the ongoing risks of operator behavior as automated vehicles (AV) take the road in greater numbers.

“Automated vehicles hold tremendous promise, but both driver-operated and highly automated vehicles will be sharing the roadways for a long time–maybe forever,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins.

“Surveys show that many drivers do not understand or trust AVs or appreciate their own operator responsibilities, likely due to the many mixed, confusing or inaccurate messages about these features,” Adkins said. “We need to win the public’s trust and prepare them for safe use so that the lifesaving potential of this technology is not delayed.”

The white paper, “Automated Vehicle Safety Expert Panel: Engaging Drivers and Law Enforcement,” was funded by a grant from State Farm and summarizes a meeting of a panel of experts representing the federal government, automotive and technology industries, criminal justice organizations, national safety groups, insurance companies and state highway safety offices.

Panel members agreed that the highway safety community needs to continue to focus on operator behavior, attitudes and culture, which will likely continue to play a leading role in highway safety.

The white paper recommends that state highway safety offices, AV developers, law enforcement and other stakeholders collaborate on a number of steps, including:

  • Developing and deploying consistent, honest safety messages to the public about all forms of automation, from driver-assistance features to full self-driving capabilities
  • Maintaining a focus on today’s ongoing traffic safety challenges, such as impaired driving, speeding, failure to buckle up, distracted driving and sharing the road with non-motorized users
  • Developing and deploying uniform policy and training for police, first responders and court officials about responding to and investigating AV crashes

“While AVs will change our lives in many ways, they raise important highway safety issues,” said Ryan Gammelgard, counsel at State Farm. “This report is a key piece to helping make sure we all work together to ensure the technology works as advertised.”

The paper said adapting to automated vehicles would be challenging for states, drivers and law enforcement agencies. It recommends that states decide what actions are needed to address and prepare for AVs by examining what changes are needed in vehicle registration, driver licensing and traffic laws.

States also should determine what actions are needed by the criminal justice system, including state and local law enforcement. They should realize that AVs will never eliminate all crashes, so they must continue to dedicate attention and funding to current highway safety problems such as drivers impaired by alcohol and drugs, seatbelt use, speeding and distracted driving, according to the paper.

Because AV developers will seek to test and deploy their vehicles across the nation, each state has set or will set its own requirements for AV testing and operation. This raises a two-way challenge: Developers need consistency across the states so AVs can travel freely from state to state, while states need AV developers to guarantee that all their vehicles will operate in a consistent and safe manner.

The challenge to the public stems from its limited knowledge of AVs and how they operate. Many drivers and road users don’t understand how and when AVs will be deployed and how they obey traffic laws. They often don’t understand that there are different levels of AVs.

According to the paper, drivers of Level 1 and 2 AVs must be in control at all times, while drivers of Level 3 AVs must be ready to take control at any time.

Level 4 high-automation vehicles are self-driving under certain conditions, and Level 5 full-automation vehicles are self-driving in all conditions and can operate without a human driver.

“The critical public challenge is to understand what the public needs to know about AVs and HAVs (highly automated vehicles) and how then to inform the public,” the paper said, adding, “It would be valuable to develop AV terminology that’s both accurate and easy for the public to understand.”

Because law enforcement and the broader criminal justice system will interact with AVs on the road, at the roadside and after a crash, they should be active participants in developing AV policy at the national, state and local levels, according to the paper.

The challenges law enforcement officers face include identifying and communicating with AVs on the road, tailoring traffic laws to self-driving vehicles and determining fault and liability when crashes occur.

“The key to these challenges is partnerships: active, cooperative partnerships between AV developers and providers, states, law enforcement, and other stakeholders,” the paper concludes. “These should be formed at the national, state, and local levels.”

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