Autonomous vehicles and traffic safety: promises and challenges

To prepare for autonomous vehicles (AVs), states have complex challenges to address--not the least of which is anticipating a mix of AVs and regular vehicles on their roads for decades. During the Minnesota TZD statewide conference October 26, Ji...

Image: Governor’s Highway Safety Association

To prepare for autonomous vehicles (AVs), states have complex challenges to address-not the least of which is anticipating a mix of AVs and regular vehicles on their roads for decades. During the Minnesota TZD statewide conference October 26, Jim Hedlund, principal of Highway Safety North, shared this and other findings from a recent report he authored for the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.

AVs are not necessarily driver-less. Rather, these vehicles are classified on a scale ranging from Level 1, which use established technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance but still give control to the driver, to Level 5, which are completely self-driving at all times.

When all vehicles are autonomous, Hedlund said, transportation will become a service, rather than something people own, and crashes will be greatly reduced, since currently about 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error. But predicting just how quickly AVs will be adopted is complicated, he added.

Based on price point, rate of turnover of the current vehicle fleet, and the rate at which other technology is introduced, AVs will be limited to mostly commercial operations throughout the 2020s. Not until the 2050s will technology be standard and will AVs make up the majority of the U.S. vehicle fleet. “These are guesses,” Hedlund acknowledged. “The main takeaway is that there will be a mix of autonomous and regular vehicles on the road for a good long time.”

Another factor that will influence how quickly AVs will be on the road is public perception, Hedlund said-and for the most part, the public is skeptical. In one recent survey, 75 percent of people said they would not ride in an AV today. People also overwhelmingly prefer an AV that would allow them to take control when they want to.


“This adds to the idea that the public won’t jump toward AVs instantly when they’re available. That said, new technology can indeed jump into the public and become quickly accepted,” Hedlund said, pointing to the smartphone as a prime example.

Traffic safety professionals need to be prepared for that mix of vehicles-AVs and non-AVs-sharing the roadway, as well as the interactions between AVs and pedestrians, bicyclists, and others who might cross an AV’s path.

Half of all U.S. states have passed laws dealing with AVs, and more than 40 companies are currently testing them in California, Hedlund noted. “You definitely want to encourage testing because the societal benefits of AVs, once they really come into play, are enormous,” Hedlund said. At the same time, states need to protect public safety.

“When we get to operations, things get much more interesting,” Hedlund said. The issues include defining who a driver is, and licensing and training drivers for the different levels-and different versions-of AVs. “There’s no standard curriculum,” he said.

States will need to determine how they’ll accommodate AVs through current or new laws and regulations. Two areas of special interest are laws that regulate speeding and distracted driving. Currently, all AVs are programed to strictly obey speed limits, but Hedlund wondered how that would work in a real-world setting, where so many drivers are accustomed to speeding. And when it comes to texting behind the wheel, should it be allowed for a driver of a level 4 or level 5 AV?

Law enforcement will be challenged by AVs as well, such as when attempting to identify one on the road or pull one over. Hacking is also a possibility, as is the use of AVs for carrying contraband.

To prepare for what’s literally coming down the road, Minnesota should aim to “be informed, stay informed,” Hedlund said. One way is to join or start a state AV task force and involve manufacturers who want to start testing. Minnesota should also work with other states to develop consistent laws, policies, and procedures. “And get law enforcement at the table; they’re critical,” he said.

Finally, Hedlund urged states to be flexible. “This is really disruptive technology, and developing very quickly.”


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Center for Transportation Studies Blog, University of Minnesota, University News Service.

Jim Hedlund, principal of Highway Safety North, Governor’s Highway Safety Association.

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