In 2013, when a state representative put forward a bill to study autonomous vehicles, proponents faced an image problem: “Scary robot cars!”
That’s how Rep. Steven Smith, a Republican from Charlestown, described the past image of self-driving cars after discussing his new bill, which would shape how New Hampshire should prepare for autonomous vehicles.
Judging from a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 1, on the bill before the House of Representatives’ transportation committee, robot cars aren’t scary anymore.
“It’s different today. The technology has progressed,” Smith said. “People have heard about them.”
The American Automobile Association and American Insurance Association both support the bill, House Bill 314, because they are optimistic that cars controlled by software and sensors will be safer than cars controlled by people.
“Ninety percent of accidents are due to human error,” Dan Goodman of AAA Northern New England told the committee. “This has the possibility of preventing thousands of accidents and saving many lives.”
Granite State Independent Living, an organization for people with a variety of disabilities, is also a backer. The disabled community has long looked forward to self-driving cars to help its members; GSIL supported the 2013 bill.
“I’m lucky. I have a van I can drive myself, very heavily modified, that let me be here today,” said GSIL representative Ryan Donnelly, who uses a motorized wheelchair. “A lot of folks don’t have that luxury. They have more severe disabilities or aren’t able to have their own transportation.
“We’re excited about the technology, excited about the possibilities. It would be wonderful someday if people with disabilities could have access to autonomous vehicles, give them the independence they need. My hope is that this bill will be the first step toward that. I’d love to see it in my lifetime,” Donnelly said.
“This is very timely. A lot of states are taking up and discussing autonomous vehicles,” said Elizabeth Bielecki, director of the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Despite all this interest, Smith suggested that the bill be retained, a parliamentary move that would allow it to be considered by the committee for as long as 10 months before they report their opinion to the full House of Representatives.
That would give time for work sessions and perhaps a demonstration from a manufacturer at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway – as Smith jokingly put it, “A field trip to Loudon!” – so the bill’s wording can be more focused.
“The questions that need to be asked are the ones we haven’t thought of yet,” Smith said.
Federal law puts oversight on self-driving technology in the hands of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but states have the right to say whether self-driving cars are allowed on their roads, Smith told the committee.
New Hampshire needs to get moving because other places, notably California but also the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., are allowing tests of self-driving cars, Smith argued.
“The point of regulations is not to stifle the industry but to protect them so they come here and invest, and make sure that it will work on New Hampshire roads that have salt spray on them, or snow,” he said.