Self-driving cars could soon be tested on Washington roads

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Self-driving cars, with or without a human behind the wheel, could begin testing on Washington roads in 60 days, under an executive order signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday last week.

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Inslee’s order, signed in front of representatives of industry behemoths like General Motors, Google and Uber, allows companies to apply with the state Department of Licensing for permission, under pilot programs, to test-drive autonomous vehicles on state roads.

The governor wrote that autonomous vehicles could produce “transformational societal benefits” and touted his action as a way to bring more companies in a growing industry to the state and to promote safer car travel. He also talked about the vehicles’ potential, if combined with electric technology, to reduce carbon emissions.

He spoke of having a “relatively light touch” with regulations on the industry. The executive order spells out few specific requirements, other than vehicles must be capable of stopping safely in the event of a system failure.

The order also creates a work group, made up of officials from various state agencies, to propose, based on results of pilot programs, changes to rules or laws concerning autonomous vehicles.

Inslee said that 94 percent of accidents are caused by human error, a number that autonomous-vehicle technology has the potential to cut drastically.

The event took place at the headquarters of Echodyne, a Bellevue company that makes high-resolution radar that could be used in driverless cars. It’s one of more than a dozen companies in the state working on aspects of the autonomous-vehicle industry.

“One thing I know about radar, it doesn’t drive drunk, it doesn’t drive distracted,” Inslee said. “We humans are really good at a lot of things, driving cars isn’t necessarily one of them compared to the automated processes that are digital and foolproof. I just have huge confidence in the safety aspects of this.”

Bryan Roosa, director of North American government relations for General Motors, said the framework Inslee laid out was similar to the limited regulations in five other states — Michigan, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia.

“Current state law doesn’t account for a car without a human behind the wheel,” Roosa said. “We’re looking for certainty. A pathway to test and deploy.”

Autonomous vehicles are already on the road in cities and states across the country, albeit almost always with a driver behind the wheel.

Google began testing self-driving cars in small numbers in Kirkland last year.

Inslee’s move is similar to one signed in Arizona in 2015, which also established pilot programs with loose regulations for companies to test self-driving vehicles and set up a committee to evaluate the outcomes.

Both Uber and Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company, are testing their vehicles in Arizona, although both companies still use a driver who can take control of the vehicle when necessary.

Designated testing sites
In January, the federal government designated 10 testing sites for self-driving cars, including the city of Pittsburgh, where Uber is also testing cars. None of the sites is in Washington.

“From now through 2025 you’re going to see a lot of this commercial use — automated taxis, automated ride sharing in individual cities,” said Scott Frank, a vice president of Airbiquity, a Seattle-based connected-car company. “Private ownership — going to the Ford dealer — we think that’s going to be 2030 and beyond because you have to get through this phase of understanding the technologies.”

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, recently predicted that his company is about two years away from a fully autonomous vehicle — meaning no driver input would be necessary.

Once deployed on a broad scale, the vehicles carry the potential to profoundly alter roadways, with possibilities that they could either ease traffic congestion or increase gridlock. Autonomous vehicles could travel more efficiently and closer together, allowing roads to flow more smoothly.

But they could also lead to more cars on the road. Picture your autonomous vehicle driving you to work, dropping you off and then returning home to park, before coming back to pick you up. You’ve made your commute and parking easier, but you’ve also turned two trips into four.

Avery Ash, an autonomous-vehicle strategist for INRIX, a Kirkland automobile-data and technology company, said widespread autonomous vehicles are unlikely in the next 10 years.

THE SEATTLE TIMES/TNS

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