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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, March 04, 2018 1:00 am

Driverless automobile pros, cons examined

Balance sought between attracting industry, safety

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Even the best, most cautious drivers in the state are struggling this year with potholes and weather changes.

So how would an autonomous vehicle – aka a driverless car – handle construction, black ice and the cavernous holes in the roads?

Lawmakers are wrestling with those types of questions this year as they both try to attract the new industry to set up here but also ensure the safety of Hoosiers sharing the road with autonomous technology.

“They want to be able to do whatever they want but we aren't willing to do that,” said Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso – the House author and expert on the topic.

By “they,” he means the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which has opposed key parts of House Bill 1341.

The alliance is a trade association of 12 passenger car and light truck manufacturers: BMW Group, FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

Currently, Indiana has no laws regarding self-driving vehicles. At the federal level, the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration has approved sparse guidelines for the industry.

Gov. Eric Holcomb chose the issue as a significant part of his legislative agenda. He said the state needs to “prepare for the next generation of transportation by authorizing testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on our roads and creating an environment that attracts research and economic development.”

Discussions have been going on for months but the auto alliance is concerned the state is considering too many restrictions that will ultimately stop the industry's progress here before it even starts.

“We think the bill is well intended but actually has some negative consequences. It's going to establish a negative precedent – an unprecedented certification system for vehicles operating in the state,” said Scott Hall, director of communications for the alliance.

He said the federal government has traditionally handled the role of design, testing and safety of vehicles while states license drivers, handle insurance and traffic laws.

But he said Indiana's efforts basically reverse that.

Hall said the federal government has some guidance out and a bipartisan bill is moving through Congress.

In general, the auto alliance believes autonomous vehicles will save lives by eliminating human error.

“By removing human error from the equation, ADS-equipped vehicles have the potential to drastically reduce vehicle crashes and save thousands of lives. And for millions of Americans who cannot, or do not, drive, including the elderly and people with disabilities, this technology represents the potential for unprecedented freedom and independence. Consequently, there is a need to clear the path for higher levels of automated vehicles,” the group said in a letter to Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

Another section of the original House bill would have required the highest level of autonomous vehicles to have licensed human drivers.

Hall said that defeats the purpose of the technology, noting that 2 million people with disabilities could possibly re-enter the workforce with autonomous vehicles.

Before the Senate made changes, a state-led autonomous driving task group would have had to approve the operation of self-driving cars that don't require a driver in any capacity. The task force could also revoke an autonomous vehicle's ability to operate in Indiana if safety issues arose.

The Senate backed away from the permit process and added financial responsibility. Both versions ban local government from regulating the vehicles.

Soliday said the state framework would drop away, though, if the federal government passed specific regulations.

He and Holcomb don't want to give auto manufacturers carte blanche without some state rules.

“It's not about trust. It's about accountability,” Soliday said.

He said other states are all over the place – some are using only executive orders from governors while others are putting standards into law; some require permits and safety standards; some do not.

“We are doing our best not to compromise safety,” Soliday said. “If we need to adjust the law we can do that. Right now we are trying to legislate around a vision.”

He noted that the area Indiana might have a strength in is platooning technology for the trucking industry. This is when several trucks equipped with driving-support systems closely follow one another. This forms a platoon and trucks are driven by the technology while mutually communicating. They would brake together with limited reaction time. Possible positives include fuel cost0savings; lower emissions and efficient traffic flow.

Todd Vandermyde – representing the International Union Of Operating Engineers Local 150 – supports a permit of some kind to hold companies accountable if there are problems with the vehicles.

“We are on the highways fixing the roads,” he said. Vandermyde believes the technology can recognize a 3,000-pound vehicle but what about a 180-pound man working five feet from traffic?”

Mark Lawrence, of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said lawmakers are trying to achieve a balance between innovation for a new business model and public safety.

The bill is up for a vote next in the Senate, though in different form from the House. It will go to conference committee to continue negotiations.

“I think we'll find a sweet spot on it,” Long said. “This issue is making sure public safety factors are considered but not to stall the process of allowing them to roll out in Indiana. It's a sensitive discussion. I think public safety concerns will be addressed properly.”

The session ends March 14.

nkelly@jg.net