Stay tuned for driverless technology

Innovative change is often hard to accept. Think back to the early Internet. As recently as 1995, the Internet was an archaic structure, used mainly by academics, scientists and the military. In 1994, Vanity Fair magazine declared the Internet a fad, comparing it to the CB radio.

Cloud computing is beginning to take hold in numerous government, business and educational environments. As cloud technology advances to the next iteration and gigabit fiber becomes the norm, we will see fewer people going to distant physical office towers as full function and communication will be available at home and places nearby.

Last year, the Georgia House Autonomous Vehicle Technology Study Committee did a superb job of engaging some of the brightest minds in engineering, law and industry to highlight a new technology that has the power to reinvent transportation. A future with autonomous vehicles holds the promise of more controlled traffic that significantly improve flow, reduce accidents and liberate the elderly, disabled and those restricted to transit dependency.

Vehicles will communicate with one another, enabling the selection of least congested routes while keeping protective watch 360 degrees around you. With the ability to not have to always drive to an office because of cloud computing, along with the automated advantage of autonomous vehicles, we can produce levels of efficiency that could have many transportation planners rethinking old strategies. We could be making multi-billion dollar miscalculations by investing more in expensive, outmoded models with low usage, such as commuter rail in suburban areas, especially when we cannot afford ongoing maintenance of existing roads, bridges and transit infrastructure.

We do not have the autonomous capability for navigating city roads for consumers at this time. However, Hyundai Genesis and Mercedes-Benz already have vehicles on the market with adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and auto-emergency braking. Audi maintains it will offer “piloted driving,” systems that take control of driving in certain conditions, such as traffic moving at speeds up to 37 mph, in about five years.

One strategy the state government can exercise is attracting autonomous vehicle research and development to Georgia. This would entail the use of local roads in low-traffic areas for controlled testing by manufacturers. This testing would help our state officials develop proper regulations and could attract new jobs connected with the burgeoning new technology.

Liability — determining whether the driver or autonomous vehicle manufacturer would be at fault in an accident — was an important issue for the House study committee. Currently, there is no answer, because the technological environment has not evolved far enough to make a determination. Controlled testing does not pose a liability challenge, as both the driver and vehicle would be the responsibility of the manufacturer. Creating opportunity for such testing in Georgia is a good idea.

I wholeheartedly agree with the study committee that any regulations created by the state should be flexible and allow for evolution of the technology. Several states have already failed on that front.

Our transportation infrastructure will be compromised if we cannot keep it good repair. That requires precious funding. If state officials and transportation planners recognize the benefits of autonomous vehicles early, they could save us from making inappropriate transportation investments in future years.

Certainly, we must ensure we can pay for future maintenance and operation of our current transit infrastructure, a fuzzy picture now at best. Paying attention to a future with autonomous vehicles and the new disruptive uses they will create could prevent us from going the way of the Rust Belt states.

No one is investing in “land lines” when most everyone is advancing to smart phones. Likewise, let’s take a hard look at this new transportation technology before we fall for outmoded heavy rail in low-density suburban Atlanta.

Steve Brown is a Fayette County commissioner and member of the Transportation Leadership Coalition.