Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Few Firm Answers on Future of Self-Driving Cars

Posted By on Tue, Sep 12, 2017 at 3:51 PM

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The Tennessee General Assembly allowed self-driving cars on state roads earlier this year but a committee met Monday to try to figure out who pays when one of those cars gets in an accident.

In May, lawmakers here joined Tennessee to a small group of states that have passed laws to allow the testing of autonomous vehicles (AVs) on their streets. That law here mandates that every vehicle carry at least one driver.

While no AVs are yet commercially available, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee looked to their future Monday. Senators pondered AVs as a inevitable technology and one that could be used as an antidote to crowded street in the state’s metros.

Nashville Metro Council member Robert Swope said car crashes claim 1.5 million lives each year and the National Transportation Safety Board said 90 percent of automobile deaths in the U.S. are caused by human error.

“AVs eliminate the problem, eliminate the human,” Swope said.

He imagined a system of AVs that could replace the need for large, costly mass transportation system. Instead of passengers loading up on a light rail car, they would individually call for an AV.

That, he said, could save taxpayer dollars without having to build costly mass transit system. Last year, he said, Nashville council members considered a transit system that was to cost more than $6 billion. That figure now is more than $8.5 billion.

“That is one step shy of insanity,” Swope said,” knowing full well it will be 10 years before that plan becomes reality.”

He said it could also reduce consumers’ annual transportation costs by 50 percent (without owning a car).

Committee chairman Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) said he was proud to have sponsored legislation that helped Tennessee to get out front on AVs.

“But we must recognize that there will be accidents that happen and that raises legitimate a question for the Judiciary Committee: When they happen, who’s responsible in civil courts?” Kelsey said.

Harry Lightsey, executive director of emerging technologies policy at General Motors, urged lawmakers to wait on legislation until the technology advances.

“Mt concern is that if we are overly prescriptive, we’d be picking winners and losers and we don’t want to do that,” Lightsey said. “We want to have the field as open as possible.”

Scott White, a lobbyist for State Farm Insurance in Tennessee, said he hoped lawmakers would consider data.

“These vehicles collect a lot of data as they travel through sensors and cameras and that data is critically information to insurers,” White said.

He said it would be important for insurers in the future to be able to get that data to recreate accidents and determine liability. But he echoed the sentiment of many of the day's speakers: It’s still really too early to tell.

“I’ve not provided any answers here today,” White said. “We’re all on a learning curve here. I’m sitting here watching a science fiction movie come to life in front of me.”

Much of the meeting had committee members trying to wrap their heads around the future of the technology and its effect on Tennessee. Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) said lawmakers are the “ball and chain on this technology.”

“The only thing halting the advance of this technology is, basically, state legislatures and the federal government,” Roberts said. “The technology is moving faster than we are.”

But as exciting as the future of AVs are, Roberts worried that it could hurt Tennessee automakers. The industry supports thousands of jobs across the state and Roberts considered that those jobs could vanish in an AV world and “we could have flushed some of our economic development dollars” down the drain.

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