By MICHAEL J. MIKA
Special to Delaware Business Times
Amid the global frenzy to research and invest in driverless cars, state governments are stepping up to embrace the technology. In February, California approved the testing of connected automated vehicles (CAVs) on public streets. More than 41 states are exploring legislation to do the same.
Since November, Secretary Jennifer Cohan of the Department of Transportation has led a 19-member task force to help position Delaware at the leading edge of autonomous vehicle technology. For Cohan, that means bringing other stakeholders interested in the future of transportation to the table.
“We need to make sure we are also including land use experts who are working on plans for the future,” Cohan said. “We’ve got to consider how the two interact.”
The advisory group is expected to make recommendations in four areas: economic development, technology, transportation infrastructure and impact on public and highway safety. The group will present its findings to the legislature in September.
“We’re told by auto and tech industries that we don’t need any more testing beds,” Cohan said. Instead, she added, companies are looking for places to deploy their vehicles on actual streets.
DelDOT is currently working on a driverless shuttle pilot program at the University of Delaware STAR Campus. The state will buy two autonomous shuttles for limited use on campus and study the human interaction and reaction. She said the idea is already generating buzz in the business community
with “lots of companies knocking on our doors wanting to participate.”
Cohan believes Delaware’s two-pronged approach – testing driverless car scenarios and researching the other infrastructure and safety concerns — will make the state attractive for future economic development.
“We must remain forward-looking to ensure that Delawareans can capitalize on the economic benefits of new technology, and to position our state as a leader in the 21st century economy,” Delaware Gov. John Carney, said last year when he created the taskforce. “Delaware can and should be a proving ground for this new technology. This council will help us identify economic opportunities related to connected and autonomous vehicles and address potential issues as manufacturers continue to develop this new technology.”
Other states are also interested in developing usable strategies. Since 2012 at least 41 states and the District of Columbia are considering legislation related to driverless cars. Delaware’s legislative discussion will begin in September when the task force findings are revealed.
Berni Koch, CEO of AAA Mid-Atlantic and a member of the task force, said, “As the advocate for motorists, AAA’s goal is to support autonomous vehicle innovation with an eye toward safety and ease of consumer use and understanding.”
Last year, the group hosted a special TEDx Salon featuring 13 speakers on the subject. In January, several AAA staffers attended the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which highlighted the latest
in autonomous vehicle technology.
“A hundred years ago, society changed with horseless buggies,” said Ken Grant, AAA Mid-Atlantic government relations spokesman. “I would dare say we are looking at the same type of societal change taking place with autonomous cars. It will change the auto buying and insurance buying process as well as driver attitudes.”
Grant said he anticipates a transition period over the next few years, as drivers face new dynamics both on the road and behind the wheel. “It’s just a technology that we should all be familiar with. The more people are exposed to it, the more accepting they are.”
Grant foresees some other changes as well:
• A society that will think differently about car ownership and insurance impact traditional businesses.
• New opportunities that will attract entrepreneurs who want to enhance the experience.
• Privacy concerns about the new amount of data CAVs will provide about its passengers.
According to a recent AAA nationwide survey, U.S. drivers are becoming more accepting of letting their car drive for them, but a majority still have some doubts about sharing the road with automated cars.
Respondents most willing to trust driverless car technology are millennials and male drivers. So will this new paradigm create safer roads?
Grant noted that so far there have been some accidents involving driverless cars, but most have been caused by humans. “The driverless car has been programmed to follow the rules and does what it’s supposed to like following posted speed limits and keeping a safe distance between cars. Something we don’t always do.”