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Despite tragedies, lawmakers still support driverless car testing in N.H.

  • In this Friday March 23, 2018 photo provided by KTVU, emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, Calif. The National Transportation Safety Board has sent two investigators to look into a fatal crash and fire Friday in California that involved a Tesla electric SUV. The agency says on Twitter that it's not clear whether the Tesla Model X was operating on its semi-autonomous control system called Autopilot at the time. Investigators will study the fire that broke out after the crash. (KTVU via AP)

  • This March 19, 2018 still image taken from video provided by ABC-15, shows investigators at the scene of a fatal accident involving a self driving Uber car on the street in Tempe, Ariz. Police in the city of Tempe said Monday, March 19, 2018, that the vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel when the woman walking outside of a crosswalk was hit. (ABC-15.com via AP)



Monitor staff
Monday, April 02, 2018

In Mountain View, Calif., the end was sudden: a Tesla car on autopilot, a concrete barrier and a fiery crash that killed the driver almost instantly.

In Tempe, Ariz., the tragedy centered on a pedestrian, struck and killed by an Uber vehicle operating autonomously.

A recent string of autonomous driving fatalities has rattled consumers, prompted states and cities to review testing laws, and put the companies behind the vehicles – from auto manufacturers to tech giants – on the backfoot.

But in New Hampshire, which is considering allowing autonomous vehicle testing as early as next year, the headlines are not deterring enthusiasm. At a Senate hearing on a bill to regulate the testing Thursday, few references were made to the pair of crashes last month, or to any that preceded them.

Instead, lawmakers supporting the bill pointed to the benefits the technology could bring once perfected, from accessibility to productivity. And with 22 states having already allowed some version of testing – with dozens more considering it – proponents say it’s time for New Hampshire to jump on board.

“This simply could be transformative,” said Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, speaking on the breakthroughs autonomous cars could bring to people with disabilities. “It’s an opportunity for New Hampshire to be at the forefront and welcome this technology as it’s being developed.”

Meanwhile, some said that the tragedies in other states underscored the need for New Hampshire’s testing proposal, which is notably stricter and more supervised than those in other states.

“It’s all the more reason to do it,” said Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, prime sponsor of the legislation.

Developed by Smith and the House Transportation Committee over the past year, House Bill 314 would open New Hampshire’s roads to the testing of “level 5” autonomous vehicles: those that, in theory, need no driver input at all. But the law would impose tight restrictions on how the cars could be introduced – not as a fleet but individually, car by car.

Under the proposal, auto manufacturers could apply to the Division of Motor Vehicles for an autonomous vehicle testing license, at $500 fee per vehicle. The manufacturer must have proof of at least $10 million in self-insurance, to apply to all vehicles it intends to test. There must also be certification of compliance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and proof that the vehicle is programmed to deal appropriately with law enforcement.

And two more conditions: Each vehicle must have already been observed under controlled conditions that mirror the intended testing environment in New Hampshire, and each vehicle must be followed by an escort.

It’s those latter requirements – in addition to the insurance minimum, double the amount in many states – that make New Hampshire’s law more responsive to the risks than most, Smith said. Speaking on the controlled condition testing, Smith mentioned the “Mcity Test Facility” at the University of Michigan: a closed, simulated city with storefronts and intersections to test the vehicles.

Only those companies with rigorous standards and resources could clear the hurdles under his bill, Smith said.

“Ours is more rigid than other states,” he said. “We’ll know about every vehicle they bring in here.”

The regulatory barriers have already attracted heavy pushback from automaker lobbyists seeking to water them down, Smith said, an indication, he said, of their value. But they’ve inspired confidence from Elizabeth Bielecki, director of the state’s DMV, who testified in support of the bill.

“I think it’s a good approach and a responsible approach,” she said. “We’re going into it with eyes wide open.”

Still, the bill could attract closer attention in the Senate. Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, said he believes the autonomous cars are the future and supports testing, but is moving cautiously in light of the accidents.

“It’s something we can’t rush into,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at@edewittNH.)