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12:09 AM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Fully autonomous vehicles are getting closer to everyday reality

Waymo early riders Trey, Candace and Izzy in the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan picking them up. (Waymo.com/Courtesy)

Courtesy

Waymo early riders Trey, Candace and Izzy in the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan picking them up. (Waymo.com/Courtesy)

Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order, issued March 1, allowing self-driving cars to be tested without human drivers on board, supersedes a previous, more restrictive one issued in 2015.

It leapfrogs a California’s Department of Motor Vehicle ruling, issued on Monday, Feb. 26, that will allow manufacturers will be able to test their vehicles without a driver on board on April 2.

Until now, Arizona required the 600 cars being tested to have a human in the car, ready to take control if necessary. The new rules mandate:

• All automated driving systems to be in compliance with all federal and state safety standards;

• The vehicle must achieve “a reasonably safe state,” such as bringing the vehicle to a complete stop, it the automated system fails; and,

• It must comply with all Arizona traffic and safety laws.

“As technology advances, our policies and priorities must adapt to remain competitive in today’s economy,” Ducey said in a news release. “This executive order embraces new technologies by creating an environment that supports autonomous vehicle innovation and maintains a focus on public safety.”

Arizona is already ahead of California: the Google-backed Waymo project is already testing driverless minivans in the east Phoenix valley, and Uber, GM and Intel are also testing vehicles with people in them.

Still, the technology has yet to be perfected, as shown in January, when a Tesla semi-autonomous sedan traveling at 65 mph struck a fire engine that was blocking traffic at a freeway crash scene in Culver City, California. It’s unclear why the (backup) driver was unable to avoid the collision.

“If the driver’s asked to do very little, and then suddenly asked to step in and take full control in an emergency, it’s somewhat unreasonable to expect them to perform well in that scenario,” Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Dr. Sam Siewert, professor of software engineering, said. “They may just mentally not be ready.”

In fact, it may represent the most difficult situation to which people must adapt: the time between human-controlled cars and primarily autonomous cars on the road.

Geoffrey Winship, a senior at ERAU working in robotics, said, “Until we have a complete autonomous driving system, it’s going to be kind of a mix of having both human-operated vehicles and autonomous vehicles working at the same time, in the same environment.

“That’s going to be one of the bigger hurdles, because of the unpredictable nature of human beings,” he said. “In a fully-autonomous system, when a vehicle can talk to another vehicle and know where it’s going to be before either of them get there, there’s less to watch out for.”

But people are less predictable, and that can lead to confusion, as anyone who has ever seen a car in the left-turn lane suddenly make a right turn. And “the autonomous vehicle doesn’t know the human-driven vehicle is going to merge into their lane until it’s happening,” Winship said.

That, at least for a time, may make for some sticky lawsuits, said Siewert. “When a human makes an error, it’s a fairly straightforward accident … the legality and the liabilities are pretty straightforward,” he said, but “if a driverless car is involved in an accident and there are human (drivers) involved … it’s going to be interesting, in terms of where the ultimate liability is.

“I think it will play out that the driverless cars, once they become reliable enough, it will become completely a statistical argument,” Siewert said, “so if the (fatality rate in motor vehicle crashes) starts to decrease on a year-over-year basis, as we add more driverless cars, you start to look less at individual cases, like the fire truck.”

He pointed out that “the whole reason to pursue this” is to decrease accident rates. “I think are also huge societal benefits for the elderly and new drivers … with respect to safety.”

Siewert said he’s routinely polled his students as the when they expect to see fully driverless car use, and has seen a change in their opinions.

“We came up with something like (the year) 2020” when he first asked the question, but now they say 2025 or 2030.

“My students were more comfortable with it several years back,” he said. “When it was more in the future, they were, ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’ (but) now people are thinking more critically.”

Follow Scott Orr on Twitter @AZNewsguy. Call him at 928-642-6999. Email him at sorr@prescottaz.com.