TEMPE, Ariz., January 31, 2013 — If it sometimes seems like no one is driving that car in front of you weaving in and out of traffic, you could soon be right.
State lawmakers are set to debate a proposal Thursday to set standards for "autonomous motor vehicles'' on Arizona roads. If the measure gains approval, driverless cars already in development could be on the road by later this year.
HB 2167 spells out that anyone with a valid driver's license can operate such a vehicle in fully automatic mode. Flip the switch and you're free to read the morning paper enroute to work.
But the measure crafted by Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, actually goes further than that. It specifies that the person who puts the vehicle into autonomous mode is considered the driver "regardless of whether the person is physically present in the motor vehicle.''
"Imagine coming to work and you basically get to work, your car drops you off at the front door of where you work and goes parks itself in the garage,'' he said. "Or, if you don't have money to afford a car, your car will drop you off there like a timeshare thing,'' driving itself to pick up the next client.
Lawmakers will get their first crack at the measure when it is heard Thursday in the House Transportation Committee.
The concept of driverless vehicles is not something out of the Jetsons or Total Recall.
Google has been testing its own versions of driverless vehicles now for years, using a combination of technology ranging from global positioning systems to LIDAR — light-detecting and ranging — which uses a rotating mirror atop the vehicle to get a three-dimensional image of what is around it.
The company said it has been operating about a dozen of those vehicles for a combined 400,000 hours without a single mishap related to the automation.
But this is more than experimental as manufacturers already are introducing elements of autonomy.
Audi showed off a self-parking car at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
And we're not just talking about options already available on several vehicles to help edge into a tight parking space. This vehicle was summoned from a parking garage by phone.
Other elements of autonomy already are built in to some vehicles, like monitoring for lane drift and tugging on the wheel and braking for an unexpected pedestrian.
So Dial figures it's just a matter of time before cars do not need the most unpredictable element of driving: the carbon-based life forms controlling everything from behind the wheel.
But his legislation goes farther than similar laws already enacted in California and Nevada which require that there actually be a human being behind the wheel as an ultimate fail-safe should something go wrong. Dial, however, said he is putting his faith in computerized technology.
"If you look at the number of accidents, the number of people in emergency rooms, people who have died, I think cars are one of the dangerous things out there,'' he said. He blamed that on human error.
"There could be the possibility of things going wrong,'' Dial acknowledged of the technology to operate autonomous cars. "But right now the safety standards are very high.''
Anyway, Dial said, any manufacturer who puts an autonomous vehicle on the road is going to make it as safe as possible because of fears of getting sued.
He conceded that relying totally on manufacturers may not be the ultimate solution, given the experience of companies like Ford, which was found civilly liable of putting the Pinto on the road without an $11-per-vehicle change that would have kept them from exploding. Dial said the ultimate backstop would be the National Transportation Safety Board.
Dial said he sees his legislation as simply setting rules for driverless cars. For example, he said, it spells out that the person who puts the car into automatic mode is considered the "driver,'' whether that person actually controls the vehicle — or is even behind the wheel.
"It's already permitted, it's my understanding,'' he said, saying no one has been able to find any statutory prohibition.
And Dial said there are simple answers to practical questions, like how a police officer would pull over a vehicle with no one inside. He said just as a driverless car would be programmed to recognize traffic lights it could be programmed to pull over when it senses red and blue lights behind it.
What the officer does with the vehicle once it's stopped, however, may be an entirely different issue.
Dial said he is so confident in the technology that he would be willing to be driven to the Capitol by a driverless car — especially if other vehicles around him were similarly computer controlled.
There is one clear risk from driverless cars — not to motorists or pedestrians but to politicians.
In Florida, last year, it became an issue in the bid by Jeff Brandes to move from the state House to the Senate. A political action committee ran a TV commercial showing a completely empty Toyota Prius nearly running over a woman with a walker, decrying his sponsorship of that state's bill on autonomous motor vehicles.
Brandes won anyway.
Source: eastvalleytribune.com, © 2013, East Valley Tribune, Tempe, Ariz.
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