Industry wants Massachusetts to reduce regulations on driverless cars

There are safety concerns on both sides of the issue

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2016 file photo, an Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

BOSTON (State House News Service) – Get out of the way.

That’s the message to lawmakers from automotive industry representatives when it comes to the rapidly evolving technology that could one day allow cars to zip around without anyone minding the controls.

“We’re not used to people asking us to do nothing,” Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee told Damon Porter, director of state government affairs for Global Automakers at the outset of a more than three-hour hearing on Wednesday afternoon.

Porter criticized steps taken by the Baker administration to permit testing of autonomous vehicles, saying they are restrictive.

“Early efforts by Massachusetts have created a patchwork of inconsistent standards and frankly some very burdensome regulations,” Porter said.

Jade Nobles, of Toyota, also argued that current state statute permits testing and deployment of self-driving cars.

Harry Lightsey, who handles federal affairs for cyber cars at General Motors, said the industry needs a law explicitly authorizing vehicles without anyone behind the steering wheel.

“We think that something needs to be done,” Lightsey told the News Service. He anticipates his company will in a couple years have a car on the market that is substantially similar to the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt and is also completely autonomous – meaning no one behind a steering wheel.

The federal government has jurisdiction over the standards for manufacturing vehicles, but states have control over drivers and vehicle insurance.

“We regulate operation and we’ve already learned that this technology is going to require people to rethink what it means to operate a vehicle,” Straus told the News Service. He said, “We don’t want the public to be in the middle of that laboratory and be at risk. So we’re not sure there’s a happy medium, but there is a place where the public safety requirements have to be recognized.”

Straus anticipates insurance liability will be “very complicated” and said the committee will work on putting together autonomous vehicle legislation.

“I haven’t sensed from the public a feeling that we’re supposed to get out of the way for testing to occur on our streets,” Straus told the News Service.

In the absence of any state law addressing driverless cars, the Baker administration has set up a working group that will consider laws and regulations. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the City of Boston have authorized nuTonomy to conduct testing in the city’s Seaport neighborhood.

The working group’s website includes potential regulations that would allow for the suspension of someone’s license for impermissibly allowing a motor vehicle to be operated that is not under active control of the driver.

“I’m not sure that the current statutes fully authorize even that level of regulation,” Straus said.

While lawmakers expressed safety concerns about novel technology controlling multi-ton vehicles on Bay State streets and highways, industry representatives pointed to autonomous technology as a solution to the 35,000 people killed in traffic crashes nationwide in 2015.

Wednesday’s hearing agenda also included bills that would bar any type of handheld cell phone use by drivers.

Wayne Weikel, senior director of state affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, spoke right after a father who testified haltingly about his 23-year-old daughter who was struck in a crosswalk by a texting driver and later died.

“The goal for policymakers, as a matter of public health, should be to help auto manufacturers bring these technologies to market as quickly as possible,” Weikel said. “It’s really not hyperbole to suggest that actual lives hang in the balance.”

Weikel said that on average one person has died every day on Massachusetts roadways over the past decade, and cited a federal statistic that nearly 95 percent of crashes are caused by human error or choice.

Rep. Dan Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat, challenged that type of assertion, listed recalls of manufactured auto parts, and criticized the industry for dragging its feet on recalling some defective products.

“This whole notion that we’ve gotta get away from human drivers because machines are wicked smart. Please,” Ryan said.

James Donovan, of Teamsters Local 25, also contended that automation can lead to mix-ups and said he supports legislation (H 2742) filed by Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat, that would require a human operator for vehicles engaged in interstate commerce, transporting eight or more people, or goods for hire.

Legislation (S 1945/H 1829) filed by Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, would establish a framework requiring that autonomous vehicles be zero-emission vehicles, although Lewis acknowledged that mandate “might be legally difficult.”

Environmental advocates told lawmakers autonomous vehicles could improve mobility and also lower greenhouse gas emissions if they are shared and their ability to roam around as passenger-less “zombie” vehicles is limited.

According to the state’s Autonomous Vehicles Working Group the state has been approached by at least five “auto manufacturers and other entities interested in testing highly automated vehicles on public roadways.” According to MassDOT, aside from nuTonomy, the only company to submit an application is Optimus Ride, an “MIT spinoff company” developing a “fully autonomous” system for an electric fleet.

Weikel said auto manufacturers have invested billions of dollars in the technology and said Massachusetts is better positioned than other states to be part of the innovation.

“The Commonwealth has real opportunity to play a role in the development of the automated vehicle technologies that will shape the rest of our lives, but to seize that opportunity the Commonwealth needs to understand that it’s in competition,” Weikel said. He said policymakers should ask, “What can be done to bring down barriers, not put them up?”

Around a century ago, Massachusetts officials considered themselves at the vanguard of overseeing the relatively new automotive technology, writing in a 1919 legislative report that “it was clearly evident that Massachusetts was in the forefront of the more progressive States in respect to the regulation and use of motor vehicles.”

Matthew Wansley, general counsel to nuTonomy, said the company – which is also operating in Singapore – wants to stay in Massachusetts and gave lawmakers a word of caution.

“It’s very important that we let the quality of the technology rather than the quality of the company’s lobbyists decide who gets to be on the road and that consumers are able to choose between competing services,” Wansley said.