Transportation chair wants new law regulating self-driving cars

FILE - In this May 13, 2014 file photo, a Google self-driving car goes on a test drive near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Self-driving cars are expected to usher in a new era of mobility, safety and convenience. The problem, say transportation researchers, is that people will use them too much. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
FILE - In this May 13, 2014 file photo, a Google self-driving car goes on a test drive near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Self-driving cars are expected to usher in a new era of mobility, safety and convenience. The problem, say transportation researchers, is that people will use them too much. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

BOSTON (State House News Service) – As the federal government and the city of Boston move toward self-driving cars, one of the state’s top transportation policymakers believes state laws should change to accommodate the new technology before it is deployed in Massachusetts.

“I would think state law ought to be clarified before vehicles are actually placed on the roads and the public is exposed to the testing,” Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, told the News Service. He said, “I’d throw out a caution flag before vehicles were on the road.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation, or DOT, on Tuesday issued a guidance framework clarifying that as cars take over more driving responsibilities, state’s will cede regulatory control over motor vehicle operations to the federal government, which oversees the equipment.

“As motor vehicle equipment increasingly performs ‘driving’ tasks, DOT’s exercise of its authority and responsibility to regulate the safety of such equipment will increasingly encompass tasks similar to ‘licensing’ of the non-human ‘driver,'” Tuesday’s report said. The report also says the introduction of highly autonomous vehicles should not change the current ease of interstate travel in motor vehicles.

State Police Trooper Robert Lima told the News Service there is not yet any State Police policy on how to handle automated cars. Likening the today’s automation technology to the more commonplace cruise control – which essentially automates the gas pedal – Lima said the person behind the wheel still bears the responsibility for the vehicle.

So far, motor vehicle automations generally handle routine driving tasks as a human sits ready to take over the wheel. Cars are also sold with emergency automated braking and other automations designed to work in tandem with someone actively driving.

Boston last week announced a partnership with the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group to start testing self-driving cars within the city and developing policies around the potentially revolutionary mode of travel.

The U.S. DOT recognized the roughly 35,000 people who died on U.S. roadways last year and said 94 percent of crashes are tied to human choice or error, creating the potential for life-saving on a massive scale if humans’ roles are lessened.

Asserting that the state’s road test is not “overly generous,” Registrar of Motor Vehicles Erin Deveney told WBZ-TV last weekend that in some parts of the state only 63 percent of applicants pass the driver’s test.

The U.S. DOT’s new policy features on its front a rendering of a car with four seats facing one another – rather than all pointed toward the front of the car – and no visible steering wheel.

“Possessing the potential to uproot personal mobility as we know it, to make it safer and more ubiquitous than conventional automobiles and perhaps even more efficient, self-driving cars have become the archetype of our future transportation,” the policy says.

Massachusetts has not passed a law specifically authorizing automated driving or regulating the practice.

Straus said it’s “certainly possible” to put an autonomous car bill on the governor’s desk during the informal sessions that continue through the rest of the year. A bill (H 2977) filed by Spencer Rep. Peter Durant, which would authorize self-driving cars, is sitting in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The bill, which was endorsed by the Transportation Committee in a redrafted form (H 4321), says vehicles with autonomous technology can be driven in Massachusetts “by employees or agents of manufacturers of autonomous technology solely for the purpose of testing the technology.”

The new federal policy defines various levels of automation from fully manual to fully automatic and contemplates a future when a car could include no human driver.

“Fully automated vehicles are driven entirely by the vehicle itself and require no licensed human driver,” the policy says. Automated vehicles can benefit from the experiences of other automated vehicles on the roadways and hold a “learning advantage over humans,” the policy says.

Right now, drivers that are impeded in their vehicle operation – such as by putting on makeup or reading a book – can be pulled over for that offense and issued a civil infraction of $40, according to Lima.

When Boston announced its partnership with the World Economic Forum last week, a specific location had not yet been selected to center the self-driving car experiment in the city, and questions remained about the legality of the endeavor in Massachusetts.

“As new technology emerges, the MassDOT and the RMV welcome the opportunity for discussion with testing entities and new vehicle manufacturers to identify the features that are being developed to determine whether the new technology meets the current statutory definitions for equipment and operation as motor vehicles, or if new laws need to be introduced to ensure new technology is introduced in a safe way,” MassDOT spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard told the News Service after Boston’s announcement.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s chief of transportation said the state should prepare for the new technology.

“I think that self-driving cars are coming. So I don’t think that the issue for us is whether they’re coming or not,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said on Boston Herald Radio last Wednesday. She said, “Our job is to make sure it’s going to be safe, and also that we set out clear rules for the industry.”

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