The Future of Transportation is Here—In North Carolina

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Just a few short years ago, self-driving cars seemed futuristic.  Now the future is here. If you drive in the Triangle, self-driving cars will soon appear on a road near you.

What is happening in N.C. Last month the News and Observer reported that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) had selected Interstate 540 in North Carolina (named the Triangle Expressway, but more commonly known as the toll road) as one of ten testing sites for driverless car technology. According to the N&O, the Turnpike Authority’s application stated that the road would be available for testing by January 1, 2018.  The article said it was not clear whether testing would occur on closed roads or in normal traffic.

This news follows a December announcement that UNC’s Highway Safety Research Center has been selected to run a national university transportation center funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The new Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety (CSCRS) will continue and expand up the Highway Safety Research Center’s efforts to make road travel safer. The CSCRS director said that CSCRS would conduct and coordinate research to address legacy safety issues—such as impaired driving and speeding—as well as traffic safety problems brought on by new technology.

Work to be done. One leading think tank reports that half of the states selected by the USDOT for the self-driving car testing sites have “autonomous vehicle policies,” in the form of executive order or legislation. North Carolina is in the half that does not.

Federal policy. The USDOT published a federal automated vehicles policy in September 2016 to guide the design, development, testing and deployment of “highly automated vehicle[s]” (HAVs)—those vehicles with automated systems that can conduct some parts of or all driving tasks and that are responsible for monitoring the driving environment. The policy outlines best practices for pre-deployment design, development and testing of HAVs before they are sold commercially or operated on public roads.

The federal policy observes that under current laws “a motorist can drive across state lines without a worry more complicated than, ‘did the speed limit change?’” and opines that “[t]he integration of HAVs should not change that ability.” Similarly, USDOT concludes that “a manufacturer should be able to focus on developing a single HAV fleet rather than 50 different versions to meet individual state requirements.”

State policy. To that end, the federal policy sets forth a model state policy aimed at creating a consistent national framework for the regulation of all motor vehicles, including HAVs. The recommended approach would maintain the existing division of responsibility between the federal and state governments:  The federal government would regulate the manufacture of motor vehicles and their equipment. States would continue to regulate human drivers, vehicle registration, traffic laws, insurance and liability. States also would regulate HAV systems that function as non-human drivers and would establish procedures for the testing and operation of HAVs.

Ethical concerns. WRAL reported recently that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are surveying people about how a self-driving car should handle untenable life-or-death decisions like the following: Imagine the brakes fail in the vehicle. As it speeds toward a crowded crosswalk, should it veer right and collide with a group of elderly people or veer left into a woman pushing a stroller?

According to the article, preliminary findings show that most people prefer for the car to act “in the greater good.”

Such questions might make for interesting surveys, but the engineers building self-driving cars are focused on designing safe vehicles, not “‘sophisticated ethical creatures,’” according to one manufacturer quoted in the story.

The USDOT policy acknowledges ethical concerns but focuses on more common scenarios. The policy identifies three objectives for most drivers:  safety, mobility, and legality, and notes that most of the time, all three can be achieved. As an example of when these objectives conflict, the policy posits the circumstance of a stationary vehicle blocking an HAV’s travel lane. To gain mobility, the HAV must cross a double-yellow line. In such a circumstance, the mobility objective conflicts with the safety and legality objectives. The HAV might resolve the conflict in different ways, depending upon the decision rules it has been programmed to apply. A conflict also appears when an HAV confronts a circumstance in which the safety of one person may be protected only at the cost of another. USDOT advises that the manner in which these dilemmas are resolved “should be broadly acceptable,” and that algorithms for resolving these conflicts be developed transparently using input from “regulators, drivers, passengers and vulnerable road users, and taking into account the consequences of an HAV’s actions on others.”

Changes to come? The General Assembly convened a few weeks ago for its 2017-18 biennium. Given the state’s selection as test site for self-driving vehicles, it is possible that the legislature will consider amending the state’s motor vehicle laws to regulate their use. But regardless of whether legislation emerges, the answer is yes: change is sure to come.

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