Handing Over the Keys

Handing Over the Keys

As more automated vehicles hit the road, motor vehicle administrators must prepare for the challenges and opportunities they present.

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The idea of riding in a driverless vehicle may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but the reality of it may be closer than you think. Some of these vehicles can be found in small capacities already, such as transporting visitors at a national park or ride sharing companies.

But not everyone is on board with fully automated vehicles. According to the Pew Research Center, 45% of U.S. adults said they would not feel comfortable sharing the road with driverless cars. That rate increases to 57% for those over age 50, while 34% of drivers under age 49 felt that way.

With so much public skepticism and fear surrounding automated vehicles, manufacturers have taken a step back to re-evaluate where their efforts and resources can best be applied. Some have pulled back on research and testing in the AV market, while others have shifted focus to improving Advanced Driver-Assisted Systems (ADAS) technology. Yet others are developing product for the growing commercial market. With these market shifts, motor vehicle administrators are facing new challenges about how to test and inspect these vehicles.

“The capabilities of driverless cars aren’t that far away,” says Paul Steier, AAMVA’s director of vehicle programs. “But just because the technology is there doesn’t mean they’re ready to be taken on the road.”

What’s New in the AV Industry?

Steier says the production of automated vehicles slowed during the pandemic, most likely due to supply chain issues, which made it difficult for manufacturers to obtain computer chips and other technology equipment. Funding for some AV projects also dried up. Though supply chain issues have since cleared up, overall growth has stabilized. In the meantime, manufacturers have switched gears, focusing more on improving ADAS technology, which Steier says impacts more drivers and offers more benefit by improving safety on the roads.

The industry has also contracted and there are fewer companies in the AV market. “Smaller companies were acquired by larger corporations and the less viable companies are no longer in business,” says Bernard Soriano, deputy director of policy with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Soriano adds that there’s been a shift in the scaling of the AV technology. For example, GM-Cruise developed their product and now is focused on building its operations while improving their product. In addition, companies are focused on producing more automated vehicles for the ride-hailing market.

Safety remains a major concern. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)  recently released the NHTSA Standing General Order which requires identified manufacturers to report certain crashes involving vehicles with automated driving systems (ADS) and Level 2 ADAS systems. With this data, NHTSA can respond to crashes that raise safety concerns about ADS and Level 2 ADAS systems. Vehicles deemed unsafe can be taken off the road or remedied, as appropriate.

The agency has also established an Office for Automation Safety and has assigned staff to coordinate enforcement initiatives with advanced and emerging technology, such as ADS and ADAS.

DMV Faces Challenges

Soriano says in the near term, DMV administrators will need to be concerned with proper registration of AVs and changing vehicle characteristics with over-the-air updates. Another concern will be remote driving, in which the vehicle is operated from a remote site. If an accident occurs with a driverless vehicle in one state, but the remote driver is located in another, who will be ultimately responsible?

Identifying driver-assisted features and testing drivers when vehicles contain these features will also be key issues, says Steier. Likewise, law enforcement officers will want to know if a car involved in a crash has automated safety features, whether they were engaged during the crash or if they were being used properly.

One resource to assist administrators is AAMVA’s recently updated guidance document, “Safe Testing and Deployment of Vehicles Equipped with Automated Driving Systems Guidelines,” which explains how the AV industry has evolved and outlines different scenarios and policy issues they might face so they can be better prepared to address them. Armed with this information, administrators can learn about the latest technologies and industry developments that can help them address the issues that are most pertinent to their jurisdictions.

California Sets an Example

The state of California has taken a proactive role with testing and pilot programs for automated vehicles. Its AVT Program allows manufacturers to test autonomous vehicles with human drivers present as well as the testing of AVs without a human driver present. After testing, California’s AVD program allows companies to deploy autonomous vehicles on public roadways.

In addition, manufacturers testing autonomous vehicles are required to report any collisions resulting in property damage, injury or death within 10 days of the incident. They are also required to submit disengagement reports annually to show how often vehicles disengaged from autonomous mode during tests, either because of technical failure or because situations required the driver or operator to take control. Soriano says the programs are in place to make sure testing is done properly.

Soriano says the industry is heading toward better movement of goods, such as commercial vehicles operating from on-ramp to off-ramp and last mile delivery of goods. The California DMV recently held a public forum to gather input from the public, manufacturers and interested groups about allowing commercial motor vehicles to be tested on California’s public roads.

“Stakeholders could speak about what issues we need to consider. When we develop policies and regulations, we have to have a public and transparent process,” Soriano says.

Commercial Vehicles Are Gaining

The commercial side continues to grow as driver shortages push the demand for driverless commercial vehicles. The industry is still in its research phase, however, and agencies are studying various safety issues. Among them: How will automated commercial vehicles interact with other vehicles on the road? What happens if something goes wrong during a trip, such as a worn tire or a battery fire? How can DMVs conduct inspections on driverless commercial vehicles?

“Most inspections today rely on driver assistance to make sure the truck’s components are working properly. But without a driver, we can’t do that,” says Adrienne Gildea, deputy executive director with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA).

“Driverless commercial vehicles may become more commonplace on the roads in the future—as long as there’s a regulatory framework in place,” says Gildea. Most likely they would operate only within specific routes, such as from Houston to Dallas, and in port locations and docks away from the motoring public.

CVSA recently launched the Enhanced CMV Inspection Program for Autonomous Truck Motor Carriers, which establishes an inspection standard and procedure for commercial motor vehicles equipped with automated driving systems. It also requires motor vehicle inspectors to complete a 40-hour CVSA training course and exam. The program not only clarifies the responsibilities of motor vehicle inspectors but also provides clearer communication protocols with law enforcement before, during and after the trip.

“Protocols and policies need to be in place so all parties know what to do,” Gildea says.

Soriano believes there’s a long stretch of time ahead when both automated vehicles and traditional human-driven cars will share the road. It’s necessary to understand how automated vehicles will perform with other human-driven vehicles, and conversely, how human drivers will respond to driverless vehicles.

“It isn’t just the technology, but also what’s around the technology that can impact a car’s performance,” Soriano says. “There has to be some communication that automated vehicles are programmed to follow the rules of the road.”

Download the 3rd edition of AAMVA’s “safe testing and deployment of vehicles equipped with Automated driving systems guidelines” here: tinyurl.com/4nue5eeu.


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