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Legislators hope the State can get ahead of and benefit from self-driving cars

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

AUBURN, Ala. — Several Alabama legislators are hoping the State can get ahead of the tide of self-driving cars by preparing flexible regulations and using the State’s universities to become a leader in research and development of self-driving cars.

The Joint Legislative Committee on Self-Driving Vehicles held its first meeting Thursday morning at Auburn’s Center for Advanced Science, Innovation and Commerce. State Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, was elected as chairman of the joint committee.

Whatley and other members of the committee hope Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering can give the State Legislature guidance on how it should prepare for self-driving cars and the impacts they may have on safety, State budget revenue and insurance coverage.

The Legislature appropriated nearly $250,000 to Auburn last year to study autonomous vehicles. Whatley hopes the Legislature can increase appropriations to Auburn this year and possibly establish an independent research institute with help from Auburn’s experts and experts at the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Technology.

“I would like to see appropriations even increase after that,” Whatley said Thursday.

The Joint Legislative Committee was established to study what effects self-driving vehicles may have and what legislation may be needed to regulate those effects. They hope to survey legislation pending in other states and draft legislation from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, all while getting industry advice before the committee passes any bills on to the full legislature.

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NHTSA, the federal agency that regulates the nation’s highways, holds a positive view on automated vehicles, noting that the technology could prevent up to 92 percent of fatal car crashes, which killed more than 35,000 people in 2015. According to NHTSA, states should play a role in licensing drivers in registering vehicles, enacting and enforcing traffic laws, conducting safety inspections and regulating insurance and liability in “the next revolution in roadway safety.”

Whatley and several other members of the committee hope Alabama can be proactive in those areas while also establishing an environment that provides the space innovators need to test and implement their new technologies.

“Alabama could be a leader in this innovation,” said Joe Lovvorn, the newly elected representative who replaced former House Speaker Mike Hubbard. “We’re already so far ahead of many other states. We have the universities working hard on it. I think we need to grab ahold of the opportunities because the technology is coming. It’s already here. It’s already making our highways safer.”

Nearly all of the 35,000 fatal accidents in 2015 were caused by human error. Proponents of self-driving cars, including all of the experts who spoke at the meeting Thursday, believe the new technology could prevent most if not all of those. Fifty percent of the accidents occur simply from lane departure. Driverless cars have the ability to prevent the vast majority of those accidents before they happen, they said.

By 2018, it is predicted that at least moderatley automated self-driving cars, with hands-free and foot-free driving capabilities will be common place on the road. By 2020, they will be very common, said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville.

“This is going to totally change how we live,” Dial said. “It’s right on top of us. It’s going to come. None of us are going to stop it. It’s going to happen. People will have self-driving vehicles.”

Self-driving cars also bring their fair share of problems that the government must address before autonomous vehicles populate the State’s 102,000 miles of public road.

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Budgetary concerns are one of the top issues if self-driving cars become prominent in the State, Whatley and Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatom. In addition to preventing accidents, self-driving cars could drastically reduce the number of speeding tickets, DUIs and other traffic citations that the State’s law enforcement issue every year, which could punch a gaping hole in the $200 million in revenue cities and municipalities in Alabama collect every year.

“We want to work together and do what’s best for the State,” Beech said. “The economy is very important, and we don’t want to ruin what the State has coming in. I’m on the General Fund committee, and we already don’t have any money, so we don’t want to lose any money there.”

Budget concerns weren’t the only topic on the agenda Thursday. The committee also asked presenters from Auburn and Alabama to address topics like auto loans, car insurance and liability, which all normally require a licensed driver to be purchased under Alabama law.

If cars drive themselves, Whatley noted, who would need a license and could license-less riders get loans to purchase a self-driving car?

David Bevly, a professor of mechanical engineering at Auburn University and the founder of Auburn’s GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Lab, said driverless cars are already on the road for research and testing in many states, and many new vehicles can already be purchased with lower-level automated features.

At Auburn’s GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Lab, researchers and graduate students have been studying autonomous vehicles for more than a decade. Auburn researchers recently developed technology that will allow tractor-trailers to platoon, driving closely together to increase fuel efficiency.

Auburn’s technology uses close-range radar and wireless connections to enable the trailing vehicle to follow closely behind the leading vehicle, at ranges as close as 5–15 meters. If the first vehicle in the platoon stops, the second brakes automatically, without intervention from the human driver.

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Platooning allows both trucks to reduce fuel consumption by an average of 8 percent.

Bevly said “platooning legislation” that would allow for this type of technology on the road would be a good start for the State. Walmart and Target, even though they are fierce competitors, have said they would work together to platoon because of the fuel efficiency and cost saving.

The committee hearing today saw representatives from Auburn, Alabama, Honda, Mercedes, local officials and the Association of Global Automakers.

Davie Garriepy, a representative from Global Automakers, said the State should avoid contributing to a patchwork of different regulations across state lines, eliminate barriers to innovation and avoid establishing strict regulations that would inhibit development.

“Automated technology does exist,” Garriepy said. “I think that’s an important note in the public policy point because we’ve quickly jumped to self-driving cars and fully automated vehicles. We’ve seen other states pass legislation that would ban technologies that are currently on today’s roads.”

Allowing automation technology to develop could save lives, improve traffic flow and reduce fuel consumption across the board, Garriepy said.

The Joint Committee will hold another public meeting once the Regular Session of the Legislature convenes in Montgomery on Feb. 7. Whatley said he hopes the committee would have some legislation read for this year.

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Chip Brownlee
Written By

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.