Senate to vote Thursday morning on Autonomous vehicle bill

Audi autonomous test vehicle
Audi autonomous test vehicle

A bill to codify the definitions of autonomous, or self-driving, vehicle use is likely to become law soon when the Tennessee Senate votes on Sen. Mark Green's (R-Clarksville) bill this Thursday.

The bill, SB 1561, will be the first in the U.S. to codify the definition of autonomy, expanding the definition of a driver to include that a human isn't required to control the vehicle.

It will amend a section of the Tennessee Code by adding that "'autonomous technology' means technology installed on a motor vehicle that has the capability to drive the motor vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator."

The bill also established a new certification program that will be administered by the Department of Safety for AV manufacturers to go through before they can be sold, tested or operated in the state. It requires the Department to establish a fee for applications for AVs, including a $0.01 per mile driven tax structure for AVs with two axles, and a $0.026 per mile driven tax structure for AVs with more than two axles.

Going through the legislature, there have been two amendments to the bill. The first deleted all the language of the original bill, replacing it with defining AV technology to mean "technology installed on a motor vehicle that has the capability to drive the vehicle on which the technology is installed in high or full automation mode, without any supervision by a human operator, with specific driving task that can be managed by a human driver, including the ability to automatically bring the motor vehicle to a minimal risk condition in the event of a critical vehicle or system failure or other emergency event."

The second amendment defined autonomous technology as "technology installed on a motor vehicle that has the capability to drive the motor vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator."

In crafting the bill, Green and others looked at big companies like Google, Tesla, Microsoft and Apple being headquartered and actively developing AV technology in California, a state that's quickly becoming a leader in AV research. There are 11 autonomous vehicles registered in California, according to Department of Revenue reports.

Based on the population estimated of California and Tennessee, Green's bill reasonably estimates that three autonomous vehicles will operate in fiscal year 2016-2017, with that number going up to six in FY 2017-2018 and nine in FY 2018-2019 in the states. Due to the low number of projected vehicles, the bill won't have a significant impact on state of local revenue or costs.

When the bill went through the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, it passed eight to one.

Even with the legislation, the likelihood of drivers in Jetson-like vehicles is still many years away as there is much development and research left to go. AVs sense their environment with things like radar, GPS and computer vision, something that is continually advancing and improving.

Technology is advancing to a point where computers are operating faster than the human brain, making incidents less likely to occur if a computer can sense a collision, like with a stray animal, ahead of time. However, technology is still in relative infancy when it comes to self-driving cars, and 100 percent fully autonomous vehicles are at least ten years away, if not more.

Director of Audi Government Affairs in D.C. Brad Stertz said that there are six levels of autonomous driving. A level zero AV is a vehicle with no advanced technology. A level one AV is one that has things like adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection and lane keeping technologies. A level two AV is one that is semi-autonomous and those are just now starting to come on the market.

Level three AVs are about two to three years away for Audi and allow hands-free operation in highway traffic at around 35 to 40 miles per hour. For a computer algorithm, it's easier to predict the highway environment rather than in suburban areas that have more stops and lines on the roads.

Level four AVs would include technology like detecting when a passenger is having a heart attack, even pulling over for them, calling 911 and driving them to the nearest hospital. A level five AV is one that is fully-autonomous. A driver can be completely hands-free and can get where they need to go with no input.

"Eventually the technology will get there," Stertz said. "But it's up to 30 years away."

Stertz said that in order for AV use to work, legislators have to pass laws for the cars that will be here sooner rather than later and plan for technology's bit by bit advancement.

"From a legislative standpoint it's important to have these different levels because we've seen in some states where lawmakers want to regulate the cars that might be here in 25 years, not the ones that will be here in two years," Stertz said. "If you try to regulate that far in the future, you don't know where technology is going to go and how fast it will advance. A key thing is that we don't think this technology will evolve any faster than the comfort level of the customers who will be using it."

The U.S. Department of Transportation is seeking the clear the hurdles against AVs on a federal level as well. President Barack Obama has a fiscal year 2017 budget proposal of nearly $4 billion for autonomous vehicles, as well as DOT initiatives to accelerate vehicle safety innovations.

The $3.9 billion budget proposal would provide for 10 years of pilot programs to test connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country, and work with industry leaders to ensure a common multi-state framework for connected and autonomous vehicles.

There have also been unveiled policy guidelines that update the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2013 preliminary policy statement on AVs. The new guidance updates it to reflect that widespread deployment of fully autonomous vehicles is now a feasible reality. The guidance also governs how components of the car must work, like steering wheels and brake pedals, which aren't used in prototype cars that are currently being developed by Google.

Even with federal action in place, each state still has to legalize the use of AVs on their roads for it to become a reality.

Green's legislation was passed on second consideration earlier this year by the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee. It will go to the Senate Floor on Thursday, March 31 at 9 a.m. If it passes, Tennessee could see self-driving cars on the road by January 2017.

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