Connecticut has opened its doors to the possibility of autonomous vehicles, and at least five municipalities are vying for a spot on the pilot program.
Ever since the state guidelines for the Fully Autonomous Vehicle Testing Pilot Program were established in March, municipalities have been preparing their applications — and the first few are now undergoing review. Four municipalities will be selected to participate.
“Autonomous vehicles are going to be one of the most disruptive forms of transportation technology we’ve ever seen, certainly in our lifetimes,” said Zach Hyde, senior transportation policy advisor for the Office of Policy and Management, which will oversee the pilot program.
One of the four chosen cities will have to meet a population threshold of 120,000 to 124,000 people while another must meet a barrier of at least 100,000 residents. Interested cities are encouraged to sign an agreement and partner with a company testing autonomous vehicles. Additionally, the cities are recommended to run tests and choose routes with the company before applying for the program.
According to Hyde, the state hopes to select a diverse array of cities and towns so that vehicle testers can develop data on varying environmental conditions. The pilot program will collect data on how autonomous vehicles function in different topographies, population densities and weather conditions.
Traditionally, autonomous vehicle programs have been implemented in states known for temperate climates, such as Arizona and California. Hyde said companies are looking to expand into unexplored regions such as New England.
“We want to signal to the world that Connecticut is open for business,” Hyde said. “We need to get out there and be at the forefront of this verging industry as the technology develops.”
The state also hopes the program will result in long term benefits in urban planning. Hyde said he expects travel time to decrease overall while the need for personal ownership of vehicles should fall. This will likely translate into less traffic and demand for parking space, according to Hyde.
Congestion in other forms of transportation such as bus and rail, meanwhile, would be alleviated by the addition of new transportation options.
“The goal is to augment transit, not replace everything we have out there,” said Connecticut Public Transportation Chief Richard Andreski.
So far, Windsor Locks and Stamford have submitted their applications, and Bridgeport, New Haven and Manchester have sent in statements of interest. According to the Office of Policy and Management, other municipalities have also informally expressed interest.
But in a September survey by Allianz Global Assistance, less than half of Americans are interested in utilizing automated cars — down 10 percent from a 53 percent statistic last year. Allianz analyzed that recent high-profile crashes involving self-driving cars have dampened America’s excitement over automated vehicles. In March, two self-driving vehicles under Uber and Tesla were involved in fatal accidents.
Navya, a French vehicle company currently negotiating partnership with Windsor Locks, is not concerned by potential safety issues. Navya has transported 275,000 people globally without injury, using automated shuttles traveling up to 25 miles per hour, according to the company’s General Manager Pierre Bourgin.
“We have created a shuttle that during public demonstrations, after two or three minutes, it gets boring for passengers because we’ve done our job properly,” Bourgin said. “But we cannot assume that the general public will trust us just because we say it’s safe.”
About 90 percent of traffic accidents in Connecticut last year were caused by human error, according to the National Safety Council.
Yet in light of public perception, Connecticut plans on levying regulations on autonomous vehicle operations as precautionary measures. Hyde said that it was hard to find a middle ground between the needs for safe operational oversight and fear of repelling the autonomous vehicle industry by creating too much “red tape.”
According to the state’s pilot program framework, a human operator must be present in driverless vehicles in case of emergency. Also, municipalities are required to conduct a public outreach campaign to educate the public about automated vehicles and the testing process.
Currently, federal guidelines on automated vehicles is a gray area. Because there is no uniform law, each state with automated vehicle programs has different safeguards that companies must abide by, making it difficult for technology to advance, according to Hyde.
“Hopefully regulations will catch up to technology,” said Bourgin.
The office will submit the first progress report for the program to the General Assembly by Jan. 1 and then again each year after.
Nicole Ahn | firstname.lastname@example.org .