State leaders are preparing for a future where vehicles can transport citizens from one destination to another without anyone in the driver's seat.
The Alabama Legislature's Joint Committee on Self-Driving Vehicles consists of five senators and five representatives who will work to formulate a plan that tackles how to transition self-driving vehicles into everyday life. The change to self-driving vehicles will affect things like public safety and the economy, according to committee chairman Sen. Tom Whatley.
"There are a lot of things you don't think about that are affected by the technology," Whatley said. "I want to have our committee be proactive in making decisions and coming up with a plan we would have in place if and when this technology is implemented. I don't want Alabama being stuck behind the curve."
While many major car companies are working toward developing vehicles that can operate without the manipulation of a driver, reaching the level of technology many are aiming for could take anywhere from five to 10 more years, said Scott Martin, an assistant research professor at Auburn University who, alongside mechanical engineering professor David Bevly, leads the university's GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory. Martin added that most companies are hesitant to even estimate a time line.
A few years ago, manufacturers were hoping to introduce level 3 autonomous vehicles — vehicles with the ability to manage most aspects of driving, but in which the driver still must be available to take over at any time — to the market by 2020, but after testing the technology, the goal changed.
"A lot of the people that are pushing to get this product to consumers have decided that level 3 may not be the best entrance into the market because level 3 systems still require a good bit of insight by the driver," Martin said. "What we’ve seen in testing is the drivers typically become over-reliant on the autonomous system and are not fulfilling their responsibility for safety and so rather than coming to market with a level 3 system, a lot of companies have decided it's in their best interest to wait until they have a level 5 quality system, meaning that there’s no need to even have a steering wheel in the vehicle."
On the road now are vehicles that utilize some autonomous driving technologies, like adapter cruise control that directs a vehicle with cruise control initiated to slow down when approaching a slow vehicle ahead, and lane-keep assist technology, that notifies or tries to correct the driver via automated steering when the vehicle is drifting out of its lane.
At the university, Martin and Bevly are focusing on navigation for autonomous vehicles, mainly commercial trucks, and developing algorithms that would direct trucks to respond to the lead vehicle in a convoy, which would be the only vehicle controlled by a driver.
"We have the first truck in the platoon being human driven, like normal, and the following would be autonomously operated so the driver doesn't have to respond to rapid changes in the lead vehicle's motion," Martin said.
The idea is that this technology could produce reduced following distances and improved fuel economy.
The technology has been tested on controlled tracks, but also on state interstates, thanks to help from the state legislature.
"In Alabama ... we've been on the road maybe 10 to 20 times," Martin said. "The state has instituted legislation to allow for that on-highway testing of those short-distance platooning convoys. That was key for us because we want to be able to get on the road to evaluate our systems."
Currently, Martin and Bevly are in the process of developing level 2 control — automated steering, acceleration and braking — and have done level 2 closed-track demonstrations at Auburn's National Center for Asphalt Technology.
Martin said, from a navigation standpoint, imagining level 5 autonomous vehicles on the roads isn't "too far-fetched."
"I don’t know if it's easy, but in most cases, there’s a pretty well predetermined type of response that as a human driver I should take if an event is happening," he said. "If there is construction on a road I was trying to take, I would have to plan a new path around it. So, from that standpoint, it’s not too far-fetched to think, 'Oh I should be able to plan a new path with an autonomous vehicle as well.' "
Whatley said he is looking ahead to how autonomous vehicles will affect drivers license laws, the policing of vehicles on the road and the local court systems, which are financed largely through traffic violation fines and fees.
"You're talking about having to fund an $180 million hole in the budget," he said, adding that at the next meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Self-Driving Vehicles, he plans to assign different focus areas to the 10 members so they can begin tackling these future issues. "Let's find out how we think this technology will affect our economy and affect the way we govern."
Members of the committee currently include Whatley, Sen. Randy Price, Sen. Clay Scofield, Sen. Rodger Smitherman, Sen. Gerald Allen, Rep. Wes Kitchens, Rep. Barbara Drummond, Rep. Danny Garrett, Rep. Margie Wilcox and Rep. Craig Lipscomb.