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VTrans Wants To Pave The Way For Self-Driving Vehicles In Vermont

This file photo, taken on Dec. 13, 2016, shows the interior of an Uber car that is set to driverless mode on a San Francisco test drive.
Eric Risberg
Associated Press File
This file photo, taken Dec. 13, 2016 in San Francisco, shows the interior of an Uber car that is set to driverless mode while on a test drive. Joe Segale, with VTrans, says Vermont could be a place to test how automated vehicles handle rural conditions.

The Agency of Transportation says Vermont needs to get ready for the eventual arrival of self-driving vehicles.

Vermont is one of only about 20 states that hasn't taken any steps yet to prepare for the emerging technology, and Joe Segale — the policy, planning and research director at the Vermont Agency of Transportation — says he wants to work with lawmakers to help set up a regulatory framework.

"This technology is coming, you know, probably quicker than what maybe folks had anticipated about in the first place," Segale says. "And Vermont should start actively preparing for automated vehicles."

In last year's transportation bill, the Legislature asked VTrans to look at what other states are doing, and to see what the thoughts and concerns are about introducing automated vehicles in the state.

VTrans held a series of meetings to try to figure out how Vermont can make it easier to test and deploy automated vehicles.

Segale says most of the testing of automated vehicles has taken place around high-tech centers like San Francisco and Boston.

But Vermont could play a role in testing out the technology in a more rural setting, on steep and winding dirt roads, and he says that could help the public get comfortable with the new technology.

"We have 8,000 miles of gravel roads, and so we need to build our own confidence that these vehicles are going to work for us," Segale says. "We want residents, businesses and visitors to benefit from the technology as soon as possible, and the testing can help get it deployed here maybe sooner than it would otherwise."

Segale says he's hoping the state can make the permitting simple and inexpensive so if companies do want to test the automated vehicles here, there are no roadblocks.

"This technology is coming, you know, probably quicker than what maybe folks had anticipated about in the first place. And Vermont should start actively preparing for automated vehicles." — Joe Segale, Vermont Agency of Transportation

According to the Society of Automotive Engineers, there are five levels of automated vehicles, which range from vehicles that assist drivers who are fully in control, all the way up to vehicles that are self-driving.

National surveys are mixed on just how quickly self-driving cars will be deployed on American roads, with one forecaster predicting that 95 percent of the passenger miles traveled will by 2030 will be from self-driving cars.

An October 2017 survey by the Uniform Law Commission — cited by the VTrans in its Jan. 15 report to the state's General Assembly — found that "approximately 20 states have either enacted legislation or have an executive order related to automated vehicles" and there's pending legislation in 10 other states.

"I don't feel like we're behind. I feel like we're right where we need to be as this develops," Segale says. "The technology is changing so fast, that trying to legislate something that isn't fully evolved isn't necessarily a good thing."

Some of the other issues Segale hopes to address this year with the working group include law enforcement, insurance, inspection and possible infrastructure needs.

Segale hopes the group can get a report together in time for the 2019 legislative session.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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