VTrans introduces the future of automated vehicles to Selectboard

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. – The Vermont Agency of Transportation asked the Springfield Selectboard to consider getting on board with what will be the future of automated vehicles. Joe Segale, policy, planning, and research director for the agency, gave a PowerPoint presentation to the board Monday, Jan. 27 to explain the recently passed Automated Vehicle Testing Act, which became law in Vermont in 2019 and created a permitting process to allow the testing of self-driving cars on state and town highways. The purpose of the presentation was to educate the local board which will, ultimately, need to decide if it is interested in Springfield becoming one of the first Vermont towns to allow testing.

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Big industries like major automobile manufacturers and hi-tech companies like Google are interested in seeking permits to test automated vehicles. The state body authorized to issue testing permits is the Traffic Committee whose members are the Secretary of Transportation, Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, and Commissioner of Public Safety. The permits are for the state highway system – Class 1 town highways, which are the continuation of U.S. and state numbered routes through the towns – and Class 2,3,4 roads in municipalities that have preapproved testing.

Pursuant to Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, the committee must conduct a hearing and notice the town 60 days prior before deciding on an application. If the Selectboard expresses an interest in Springfield becoming a test town, it can identify specific class 2,3, or 4 roads to include or exclude. Municipalities can withdraw approval at any time.

Segale told the board this is the future of driving with some level of automation and Vermont needs to prepare for this eventuality by making sure the industry is ready to hit the roads here. He said testing is needed in Vermont so the automated intelligence in the vehicles can learn about the state’s winter driving conditions and its hilly and occasional dirt roads and share that technology in a database. The AI will learn as it drives.

There are five levels of driving system: level 1 is driver assisted; level 2 is partial automation; level 3 is conditional automation – does not require a human at the wheel but it is the backup and can take over; level 4 is high automation; and level 5 is completely self-driving and the human is just the passenger. The Act is only for levels 3,4, and 5 and a permit is necessary because the vehicle will be able to do all tasks, steer, react, and respond. It is important to note that the permit is for the tester, not the vehicle.

By 2020, Segale said, the forecast is that 1 to 2% of all vehicles on the road will have these three levels. By 2050, that number is predicted to be 40-60% and the electric cars, which currently makes up all of the self-driving force, will be able to charge themselves and not need a human to plug them in. The car can drop you off, park, and charge itself and pick you up when you are ready. Since the vehicle will not need parking, parking garages will become less necessary and be repurposed back into green space.

The vehicles will be equipped with camera image recognition; articulating, short-range and long-range radar; lidar (image sensing); GPS sensors; and high-speed processors. A vehicle can pull itself over if something goes wrong or limp home.

Segale said some forecasts say a family could save money with automated vehicles. You can own a vehicle individually or participate in car share, jointly owned cars, which is the cheaper option. There is a prediction that there will be fewer cars on the road, therefore, less greenhouse gas emissions.

At this time, the national Legislature cannot prohibit or prevent a driver from using an automated car on Vermont’s roads, there are just policy guidelines. Chair Kristi Morris said it would be in the town’s best interest to learn the safety concerns. Member Michael Martin said Springfield is trying to position itself as a tech innovator and if you cannot prevent vehicles from using the roads here, the town should also position itself as a candidate for the testing. Member George McNaughton asked Segale if there would be local road improvements to accommodate testing and, if so, who would pay for that? Segale said the tester is bringing everything to the table it needs to do. The town will not have to pay for road improvements.

The agency is working on a permitting guide and has to release it by January 2021, but Segale said it will be ready for general comment by spring. The testing requirements are that the applicant must be 21 years of age; pass a background check; at all times have a blood alcohol level less than 0.02; carry $5 million in liability insurance; comply with all state and local rules of the road; and, the vehicle must be clearly identifiable. The applicant must have experience with the vehicle, perform a voluntary safety self-assessment, have a testing plan, and a first responder interaction plan. First responders must be able to disengage the vehicle and pull it over, which will require initial training. Segale suggested there be a local working group that includes public safety, fire, and police.

What would testing look like? Testers may evaluate private passenger vehicles, ride-for-hire services like Uber or Lyft, shuttles, buses, delivery vehicles, or trucks. Testing could be limited to specific geographic areas, roads, and surfaces. Other conditions may also be defined like weather or daylight hours.

Testing is underway or complete in approximately 30 cities across the United States. No towns have signed on yet in Vermont. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire are presently testing these vehicles, so Vermont public participation is critical. At the national level, the focus is on safety and equipment. At the state and local levels, it is education, training, safety inspection, regulation, insurance, and liability.

“Why should you allow testing on Vermont roads?” Segale asked. He said the process provides transparency, public confidence, and a clear process for testers. “Most crashes are caused by human behavior and crash numbers are increasing,” he said and added, “Vermont roads are unique. Testing needs to happen here.”

VTrans’ next presentations will be in Bellows Falls and then Rutland. The Selectboard took no action at the meeting.

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