Self-Driving Cars Are Coming. Oregon Isn’t Ready.

While other states power forward, Oregon lawmakers struggle with how to handle the coming wave of self-driving vehicles.

(Collage by Rosie Struve)

Last week, Oregon lawmakers took new legislation that would regulate self-driving vehicles out for a spin.

The promise of self-driving or autonomous vehicles is safer highways—but Oregon lawmakers are skeptical.

"I have grave concerns," said state Rep. Paul Evans (D-Monmouth) during a Jan. 10 hearing of the House Interim Committee on Transportation Policy. "I can only imagine how much fun our enemies or a hacker in Ukraine would have dialing into a missile driving down the highway at 60 mph with a hostage inside."

Evans was debating a legislative concept, proposed for the February session, that would begin to create a framework for such vehicles to operate in Oregon. To many state legislators, the thought that autonomous vehicles may soon ply Oregon's roads is unsettling.

"Can you imagine an 80,000-pound rig barreling down the highway with nobody behind the wheel?" asks state Rep. Andy Olson (R-Albany), a retired Oregon state trooper. "That scares the hell out of me."

But autonomous vehicles are coming, whether Oregon is ready or not. And we're behind.

Lawmakers in 21 states have already passed legislation creating some legal framework for such vehicles. And governors in six states have issued executive orders aimed at getting autonomous vehicles onto their roads soon.

Change is coming fast. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, General Motors' autonomous-vehicle subsidiary, Cruise, sought federal permission to begin mass production in 2019 of vehicles with no steering wheel or brake or gas pedals—i.e., no human controls.

In Oregon, the rapid advance of technology is running up against lawmakers' understandable desire to make sure what's new is also safe.

As the brief discussion in Salem last week highlighted, Oregon has done little to prepare. But the urgency around the issue spiked at the end of last year.

Arthur Towers, a lobbyist for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, which backs the proposed legislation, says the catalyst can be explained in three words: "deployed in Arizona."

On Nov. 17, Waymo, a part of Google, rolled out self-driving vehicles in Phoenix suburbs. (The only other place such vehicles operate is on the University of Michigan campus.)

"That freaked us out," says Towers. "It told us those vehicles could be here sooner than anybody thought."

Waymo's move sped up the timeline, but Oregon lawmakers could have seen autonomous cars coming.

As WW first reported, Daimler, which manufactures tractor trucks in North Portland, tested a self-driving truck on I-84 in December 2016. A licensed driver was on board.

But there's a long distance from one-off tests to commercial-scale operations and vehicles with no driver on board.

Oregon lawmakers face a number of unanswered questions. Among them: Are self-driving vehicles legal on Oregon roads? If something goes wrong, who is responsible?

After legislation died in the 2017 session, a work group met six times last year, bringing together numerous interests: manufacturers, transportation companies, insurers, trial lawyers and organized labor. Labor represented the interests of those who stand to lose jobs to self-driving vehicles, including truck and taxi drivers.

In a June 15, 2017, letter, legislative counsel Dexter Johnson provided lawmakers a road map. He told them it's probably already legal to put both commercial and passenger self-driving vehicles on Oregon roads as long as there is a licensed driver on board. Vehicles with nobody on board are probably not legal, Johnson wrote.

But, he added, "several Oregon statutes simply do not make sense when applied to fully automated motor vehicles."

State law requires, for instance, that the operator of a vehicle be at least 16 years old and a licensed driver. What if the operator is not a person but a corporation?

Other laws require the operator to remain at the scene of an accident and to maintain a space between vehicles that is "reasonable and prudent." Can either occur if there is no human operator?

Currently, there's a high-stakes race to debut driverless cars among American and European car manufacturers, including GM, Audi and Tesla and tech companies such as Waymo, Lyft and Uber. Those companies are seeking to profit from a monumental technological change.

And at least for now, they are patiently waiting for lawmakers to get comfortable.

"We are continuing to take the time to work with Oregon's policymakers to find the right policy solutions to test and deploy self-driving vehicles safely," said David Strickland of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which includes Waymo, Uber and others.

From a public interest perspective, the promise of self-driving vehicles is road safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 94 percent of serious vehicle crashes—which killed 37,461 people in 2016—are caused by human error.

"Fully autonomous cars and trucks that drive us instead of us driving them will become a reality," NHTSA's website says. Oregonians may wake up one day soon to see just that.

"These vehicles don't have to pass muster with [the Oregon Department of Transportation]," says Towers, the trial lawyers lobbyist. "We're worried these things come to Oregon in autonomous mode and start operating first and apologize later like Uber did."

Evans said the legislative framework the Transportation Committee is set to consider next month provides inadequate safeguards.

"I hope to kill it," he added. "I have grave concerns about our ability to understand and master this technology."

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