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If Self-Driving Cars Are To Be Tested On Vermont Roads, Towns Hope To Have A Say

A partial view of a care tire set against a black background.
If the Legislature is able to figure out a permitting model that works for everyone, then Joe Segale, with VTrans, said autonomous vehicles could be tested in Vermont within two or three years.

The Agency of Transportation wants Vermont to be a testing site for self-driving cars, but there’s a debate in the Statehouse right now over how much oversight towns should have when the technology is tested on public roads.

VTrans wants lawmakers to get a permitting framework in place so companies that make self-driving vehicles can test the cars on Vermont roads. The bill, S.149, is currently in theHouse Committee on Transportation.

When the bill came out of the Senate, municipalities were given the final word; companies would have been required to go before each town or city for approval before testing the vehicles on public roads.

“We heard from the automobile manufacturers who said, ‘You know what, if that’s in there, nobody’s coming to test in Vermont,'” said Joe Segale, the director of policy, planning and research for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

According to Segale, automated vehicles can be test-driven on public roads at about 30 locations around the United States, but most of those sites are in warmer climates and in cities. Segale said Vermont could become an important testing ground for seeing how self-driving cars do on rural roads.

The big question now is just how much input local officials should have when the new technology is rolling down Main Street.

“How can we figure out how we can get the right kind of, you know, input and control and comfort and collaboration at the local level — but at the same time, have a process that is predictable and, you know, streamlined so that these testers come to Vermont," Segale said.

And according to Gwynn Zakov, the municipal policy advocate with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, “Now we’re trying to find sort of a middle ground here."

Zakov said the league pushed pretty hard in the Senate to give municipalities a voice in deciding where the testing could take place. But if companies say it’s too onerous to seek each town’s approval, then it doesn’t do any good to have a policy but no testing.

Zakov said lawmakers are still hammering out the wording, but the idea is that the state would meet with local officials before issuing a permit, as well as make sure there is buy-in from the selectboard, road crews and local law enforcement.

“At this point we’re giving a little bit more power to the state in terms of putting a little bit more trust in their decision-making and hoping that they make the right decision,” said Zakov, “and really do the education and the outreach — and really try to push the communities that say ‘Yes, we want this’ as those communities that we’re going to show to the testers, that these are the areas that you’re going to want to test at.”

If the Legislature is able to figure out a permitting model that works for everyone, then Segale said autonomous vehicles could be tested in Vermont within two or three years.

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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