N.H. lawmakers consider driverless car testing by 2019 

  • Wheego.net autonomous vehicle on static display at the City of Atlanta's Smart City Project launch Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. The vehicle was one of three used to demonstrate the city's project to employ high-technology sensors and cameras to guide AV's to improve traffic safety. AP

  • This Friday, Aug. 24, photo, shows the specially designed delivery car that Ford Motor Co. and Domino’s Pizza will use to test self-driving pizza deliveries, at Domino’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ford and Domino’s are teaming up to test how consumers react if a driverless car delivers their pizzas. The car, which can drive itself but will have a backup driver, lets customers tap in a code and retrieve their pizza from a warming space in the back seat. AP

Monitor staff
Published: 10/11/2017 8:18:04 PM

Exactly when the driverless car revolution hits the Granite State is anyone’s guess. But if Rep. Steven Smith has his way, testing on those vehicles could begin in just over a year.

At a House Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday, Smith, the group’s chairman, unveiled the latest draft of a retained bill that would allow car manufacturers to test automated vehicles on New Hampshire roads by January 2019.

Under the proposed legislation, House Bill 314, anyone with a self-driving vehicle, a $10 million insurance plan and $500 for a state licensing fee could apply with the Department of Transportation to test the vehicle on New Hampshire roads.

Applicants would be required to produce certification that the vehicle had been previously tested under controlled conditions that would simulate the testing environment in New Hampshire. And they would need to demonstrate a plan for how the vehicle would interact with law enforcement – the type of encounter some on the committee said could become quickly fraught.

Smith said the bill, which will come to a committee vote next week, would provide valuable testing experiences to help and state officials mold future policy around the cars.

“We want to see what challenges come up, so if these things are ever for sale we know how to handle them,” the Charlestown Republican said. “It’s going to be a learning process for all of us.”

HB 314 would apply to “level five” autonomous vehicles – the highest of five levels of automation under guidelines designed by the Society of Automative Engineers. Levels one to four are already allowed under New Hampshire law; a level one encompasses cars with cruise control and antilock brakes, whereas a level four includes the Tesla autopilot function, which can drive itself for stretches but requires some driver involvement.

Level five denotes a vehicle that can operate with no driver input at all.

The mandatory $10 million insurance policy would cover a broad swathe of potential vehicle and property damage incurred by the cars, Smith said. Meanwhile, the $500 per-car state fee would adequately cover the overhead necessary for the departments of Safety and Transportation to properly process each application.

The cars themselves could theoretically be driven on any road in New Hampshire, though manufacturers would need to tell the Department of Transportation the dates and geographic areas they plan to try the cars out.

And the cars would likely not make appearances on interstates; federal law requires its own stringent permitting process for that, according to Smith.

In weighing the new law, New Hampshire lawmakers follow on the heels of a majority of state legislatures. Since 2012, 41 states have considered or are considering legislation related to fully automated cars; 26 states already have laws or executive orders on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last October, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts signed an executive order allowing testing within the state.

Smith is aiming to use the late start to New Hampshire’s advantage; the draft bill contains text taken from other states’ legislation, including Texas, Alabama and Maryland, he said.

After submitting a placeholder bill last legislative session, Smith said the latest draft was informed by consultation with automakers and U.S. Department of Transportation officials.

Among the manufacturers showing interest in testing in New Hampshire are Audi, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, he said.

But as New Hampshire joins a slew of other states inviting companies to test on its roads, the driverless rollout has not been flawless.

In May 2016, a Tesla driver in Florida was killed after a crash with a tractor trailer truck while the car was on autopilot, the first known fatality involving a self-driving vehicle. A later review by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that the driver, Joshua Brown, had received and ignored multiple warnings to return his hands to the steering wheel during his drive.

Smith brought up the experience multiple times during the committee meeting, seeking to stress the importance of proper and thorough testing of the vehicles before they pass to consumers. And he noted that under his new bill, driving that model of Tesla hands-free would not be permitted.

“If you’re driving a category four vehicle, you’re still responsible,” he said. “So don’t get drunk, jump in your Tesla and say, ‘Take me home.’ ”

And he said that the requirement that the vehicles be tested in controlled positions would ensure that they can handle diverse situations – such as roundabouts and pedestrians.

“They’re on the hook for everything,” he said.

Addressing implementation, Smith said the initial introduction of the test vehicles should be done without informing the public, reasoning that “hooligans” might decide to swerve around the of the car to test its reactions.

Some in the room took issue with that. Rep. Skip Cleaver, D-Nashua said without warning, fellow drivers would notice the empty seat anyway and likely become alarmed. Lt. John Marasco, Highway Safety Commander for the New Hampshire State Police worried what departments would tell the public in the event of a high-speed pursuit after a malfunction.

“They’re going to want to know who the driver is,” he said. “We’re not going to provide one, because we don’t have one.”

Smith said police would have broad latitude to stop the cars at all costs.

“The uncomfortable part is if it’s malfunctioning and being unsafe and it refuses to stop, you’re going to do whatever you need to know if I’m being unsafe and refusing to stop,” he said, addressing Marasco. “It’s really no different.”

But despite a few raised eyebrows, legislators in the room appeared broadly receptive. And Smith characterized the draft bill as an important first step.

“This is as much a test for us as it is for manufacturers,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know exactly what’s going to work right. ... It should be an innovative process. We nail too much down and we get one thing wrong, then what?”

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