Automation and robotic technologies have been relatively slow to move into personal vehicles. Certainly there have been notable auto safety improvements that are automation-enabled, such as air bags, electronic stability control and anti-lock braking, and electronic systems have resulted in much improved vehicle efficiency. Still, the basic dimensions of driving have remained unchanged for decades.
This is changing, however. Auto manufacturers are rapidly advancing the ability of vehicles to drive themselves under certain conditions, such as stop-and-go congestion and on freeways.
An era of new automation is sweeping the industry and the incremental march is moving toward a fully self-driving car. While the near-term impact on DOTs is not large, within two to three decades the influences of self-driving vehicles on highway capacity, auto ownership, travel mode, parking and land use are open to broad speculation.
One immediate effect, however, is for DOTs that also control their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). DMVs have a large role as vehicles become more automated, because they license vehicles and vehicle operators. If a vehicle has no operator (Google is designing its vehicles with no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal), it’s easy to see that there will be a government regulatory challenge. As recently noted by the California DMV, vehicles are currently safety tested by manufacturers under federal oversight. No similar system exists today for driverless vehicles.
Meanwhile, manufacturers will continue to push levels of vehicle automation. Most auto makers have made announcements, or at least predictions, about automated vehicle market introduction. Fully automated freeway driving has been demonstrated in prototypes from Honda, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Mercedes, Volvo and Audi, among others, with predictions that such technology will be available by the end of the decade. Manufacturers, if they were waiting for ‘smart highways’ of the future to introduce automation, would have a long wait. Instead, auto makers will take what we have given them, an aging but fairly consistent highway system (thanks to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices), and forge ahead with or without transportation agencies.
Despite this rapidly changing technology, it is my belief that DOTs should refrain from adopting state-specific driverless vehicle regulations. The temptation is to adopt new regulations to respond to the perceived benefits of being progressive and stimulating economic development, but it might be best to let a few large states set the direction. If many states develop driverless car regulations, it will mean that they will all have to rewrite driverless car regulations when the real facts are known. Moreover, it’s possible that existing vehicle regulations can do the job all the way to Level 2 or 3 automation as long as the driver remains in the equation. Level 3, according to NHTSA, is limited self-driving automation, where the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway, but must be in a position to take vehicle control with some notice. Level 3 will be the highest level of production vehicle automation for at least the next decade. The driverless vehicle, Level 4, is a more distant goal.