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November 2013

As autonomous vehicle technology evolves, the effects will be seen at every DMV

BY Elizabeth Millard


It’s Monday morning, and as employees arrive at their office buildings, they send their cars back home for other tasks like ferrying a spouse to a job across town, dropping the kids off at school, or even stopping in at the repair shop or car wash. In the afternoon, the cars navigate around traffic to take the children to sports practice and play dates, and then pick up their owners for the quick, safe car ride home.

Although that scenario seems like the stuff of science fiction, autonomous technology is already present to some degree in many vehicles—for example, cruise control or assisted parking systems—and every major vehicle manufacturer is exploring its possibilities.

Once-fanciful inventions, cars that drop someone off to do grocery shopping and then go park themselves aren’t the visions of daydreamers anymore; they’re now the conversations of engineers and designers.

“It’s fascinating how quickly these technologies are being developed,” says Scott Clapper, chief of vehicle services at the Delaware DMV and chair of the Vehicle Standing Committee for AAMVA. “What seems like an unreal scenario—my empty car driving itself to my work and back—is likely to be commonplace to us at some point. And that time is probably coming sooner than we think.”

Innovation in progress

A vehicle doesn’t need to be fully self-driving to meet the definition of autonomous (see sidebar below), and it seems that the race is on when it comes to packing vehicles with autonomous functionality.

Daimler AG just announced that it intends to launch a self-driving car by 2020, so it can be first to market with extensive autonomous functions. The vehicle would fall under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “limited self-driving” category, because it would feature highly automated driving on highways or through traffic snarls, but it would relinquish control back to the driver for urban driving or more challenging traffic situations.

Every other car manufacturer is also exploring more autonomous features, and even Google is getting into the game: The tech company is designing software, Google Chauffeur, for autonomous cars, and is currently testing the software in modified Toyota Prius models.

State transportation agencies are looking ahead as well. In 2013, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation kicked off a project with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to assess the implications of connected and autonomous vehicles on the state’s transportation system.

Other states are studying the potential effects of the technology as well, and passing initial legislation such as Nevada’s SB 511, which outlines autonomous vehicle driver’s license endorsements and other regulations. Nevada, along with Florida and California, is at the forefront of permitting the operation of autonomous cars in testing scenarios on public roads.

Benefits and challenges

As autonomous technology gains a foothold in vehicle manufacturing and garners further study from states, it’s likely that society will begin to see a range of benefits, notes Cathie Curtis, director of vehicle programs for AAMVA. Not only will there be significantly improved highway safety, but people with disabilities will have more mobility, she believes. Also, there will be economic benefits as the widespread use of new technology creates investment and job opportunities.

The NHTSA adds that vehicle control systems that automatically accelerate and brake with the flow of traffic can conserve fuel more efficiently and reduce congestion. Fewer accidents will also have a ripple effect in terms of societal benefits—less emotional toll on families, fewer hospital stays, less absenteeism at jobs and reduced property damage.

“If you can reduce or eliminate human error, just think of the tens of thousands of accidents that could be prevented,” says Clapper. “Even with the concerns about the technology, that’s pretty compelling.”

Those concerns are largely intellectual at this point. Critics of autonomous technology point to drawbacks like potential cybersecurity issues and privacy intrusion if hackers were able to gain control of the data that allows the cars to operate. Determining which government agencies would handle those issues is part of every regulation conversation, Clapper notes.

DMVs dive in

Another challenge, particularly for DMV agencies, is that laws around autonomous vehicles differ from state to state. Even laws that don’t seem directly related to the vehicle type will need to be tweaked in the future as the vehicles see wider adoption.

For example, in many states, texting while driving is illegal. But with a fully autonomous vehicle that doesn’t require a conventional driver, texting wouldn’t be an issue, creating the need for changes to the existing law. Autonomous vehicles will also have an impact on driver impairment, insurance and liability laws.

In California, for instance, the onus is on the DMV for developing regulations for autonomous vehicles, with a deadline of January 2015, according to Bernard Soriano, deputy director of risk management for the California DMV.

“We have to consider who will have the authority to regulate issues like privacy and liability,” he says. “If not the DMV, is there another government agency that should be involved? What laws need to change? What should be allowed on public roadways? These are the kinds of questions that we’re working to answer.”

As each state develops its own regulations and procedures, it’s likely that best practices will be shared, as DMVs consider issues like insurance coverage, vehicle registration requirements, driver education and other requirements.

“In the near future, DMVs will be considering the way in which they will be evaluating new drivers that have automated technology in their vehicles,” says Curtis. “The DMVs will need to consider how they will test the driver’s skills controlling the vehicle manually and balance that with the driver’s ability to operate the vehicle with the technology engaged and disengaged.”

Most likely, licensing will change significantly, but infrastructure will stay the same, believes Clapper. Vehicles being tested now are designed to use the same roadways and signage as conventional vehicles, although the future may bring more high-tech additions like sensors. Driver testing will also need to be tweaked, especially for vehicles defined as “limited self-driving,” in which a driver needs to take control only in certain situations.

Despite the numerous issues that autonomous vehicles present, there’s also a sense of anticipation about the technology advances, and the abundant advantages that could result. Soriano says: “I loathe when people say something is a ‘game changer,’ but this one really is. It will change the way we function as a society, and there are so many benefits ahead. It’s very exciting."