A group of state legislators went to the State Highway Patrol test track on Monday to ride in Teslas, Toyotas and other cars that can park themselves and go down the highway without their drivers touching the accelerator or the steering wheel.
None of the cars was truly autonomous in a way that would allow them to move around without a driver. But the legislators know that day is coming, which is why they were out there seeing what features automakers offer today on the path toward self-driving cars. These members of a House transportation committee will help determine how North Carolina will adapt as the auto industry shifts from human-driven, gas-powered vehicles to electric autonomous ones.
“This will be the largest transition for transportation since the horseless carriage,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Gaston County and the committee’s chairman. “And my neighbors don’t know that yet.”
In addition to riding around the test track in cutting-edge cars, the legislators also heard from representatives of Uber, General Motors, Toyota and others who follow the development of auto technology.
They described a not-too-distant future in which cars will be electric; autonomous and connected to each other and their surroundings; and shared. Electric because it’s cleaner and potentially more sustainable; autonomous and connected because computers will be safer (and cheaper) drivers than humans; and shared, because self-driving means people won’t need to own a car if they can summon one when they need it.
“We think all these trends are coming together,” said Justin Erlich, Uber’s head of policy for autonomous vehicles and urban aviation. Uber expects to roll out a fleet of air taxis in big cities by 2030.
Rather than science fiction, these forecasts have become the stuff of the business pages. Uber has contracted with Volvo to build 24,000 self-driving taxis beginning in 2019, while GM says it will run its own large-scale fleet of driverless cars-for-hire in large cities the same year. GM has also announced that it will offer 20 new all-electric models by 2023.
These technological changes raise questions for governments at all levels. Among them:
▪ How will the state raise money to build roads and bridges if its largest source of revenue, the gas tax, dries up as vehicles go electric?
▪ If self-driving cars mean fewer people own them, will cities, universities and businesses need as many big parking lots and decks? Can that land be put to better use?
▪ Autonomous vehicles also promise to use the highways more efficiently, by maintaining steady speeds and traveling closer to each other. Can we build or widen fewer roads?
Kevin Lacy, the state traffic engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said much about how the changes will play out remains unclear. Another big variable: How quickly will the public take to the new technology? Will people get in a car without a driver? Will they want to pay for one? (The market research firm IHS Markit published a study in 2014 that estimated that self-driving technology would add between $7,000 and $10,000 to the price of a car in 2025; more recently an executive at a Silicon Valley startup involved in developing components for them says the first truly self-driving vehicles will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.)
Lacy said that however it plays out North Carolina wants to be ready for the new technologies and encourage them.
“We don’t want DOT or the state of North Carolina to be an inhibitor on this,” he said. “We want it to happen here.”
How can we help?
Near the end of their day together, Torbett asked the industry representatives and other experts what the General Assembly should do in the coming year to ease the technological transition. This year, legislators passed a bill that set some basic ground rules for licensing and operating an autonomous vehicle and created a committee within the NCDOT that will follow the technology and recommend policy changes to the state.
For now, that’s enough, the representatives from GM, Toyota and Uber said. Harry Lightsey, GM’s executive director for emerging technology policy, said the companies don’t know yet exactly what they’ll need.
“What we need going forward is flexibility,” Lightsey said.
Several suggested that computer-driven cars will benefit from road improvements that help humans, such as clearer signs and strong lane striping on the pavement. Self-driving cars will use GPS and a combination of cameras, lidar lasers and radar to keep themselves on track, which means government won’t need to build elaborate systems to support them.
“I’m thrilled to know that most of the brains are going to be onboard,” Torbett said after he emerged from behind the wheel of a Cadillac CT-6 that can drive itself on the highway.
Torbett took the Cadillac out on Interstate 40, where the car was in autonomous mode until it came to the construction zone on the south side of Raleigh. There, the computer didn’t trust itself to stay in its lane and notified Torbett that he needed to take control of the car. Construction zones, accident scenes and cops directing traffic are just a few of the challenges the engineers of self-driving cars need to overcome.
Meanwhile, the only fully autonomous vehicle on the Highway Patrol’s test track Monday was the EcoPRT, a two-person electric machine that looks like a small closet with windows on wheels. Built by students and faculty at N.C. State University, the EcoPRT is designed to carry people across campus, either on the ground or along an elevated track.
Seth Hollar, an engineering professor involved in the project, gave Torbett a short spin around a parking lot in EcoPRT. He emerged impressed.
“We need to get North Carolina on the map,” he said. “This will aid and assist that.”