Here’s how self-driving cars are already impacting cities and towns

There are benefits and challenges to the mainstream adoption of self-driving vehicles. (Photo: iStock)
More than 90% of automobile crashes are attributed to human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Given this fact, it is understandable why the idea of self-driving automobiles and the many companies now actively pursuing their creation, has become a hot-topic.

Self-driving automobiles are convenient and trendy right now, but they also potentially hold revolutionary technology that could increase safety on the road.

Related: Insuring autonomous vehicles

It’s not clear, however, just how fast the technology will continue to develop or how soon the roadways might see even a few self-driving automobiles, never mind when they will become mainstream.

Regardless of whether the widespread deployment of self-driving automobiles occurs next year or in 10 years, cities and towns nationwide need to be prepared for everything that the new technology will bring to their communities; both the opportunities and the risks.

There are many potential benefits that self-driving automobiles offer including:

– A reduction in traffic injuries and deaths;

– Increased mobility for the disabled and elderly;

– A reduction in congestion; and

– An enhanced connectivity for all demographics.

But along with these benefits, the introduction of self-driving automobiles to our roadways presents municipalities with a multitude of concerns, such as how the technology will interact with infrastructure that is already a struggle to maintain, replace and update.

Related: Is the insurance industry ready for self-driving boats?

What to plan for

Although we do not know when society will fully embrace self-driving vehicles, it is not too early for municipalities to begin planning for risks now. Budgets are already stretched to the breaking point in many areas and supporting the infrastructure for self-driving automobiles will take time and money. Municipalities will need to begin identifying funding for these changes immediately before they fall behind the curve and face more risk than necessary.

Municipal budgets are already stretched to the breaking point in many areas, but supporting the infrastructure for self-driving automobiles will take time and money. (Photo: iStock)

Here are some of the specifics that local governments should keep in mind:

Keep road signs clear and undamaged. Self-driving automobiles, in many forms, use cameras, lasers and software to identify road signs, lane markers, pedestrians, bikes and proximity of surrounding vehicles. Signs that are obstructed or only partially visible or signs with damage may impact the self-driving automobile’s ability to interpret the sign.
Stay ahead of the curve. As a result of one recent self-driving automobile accident, the U.S. Department of Transportation will likely propose that all self-driving automobiles have vehicle-to-vehicle communication. While this may not seem like an issue for the public sector, what this means is that besides communicating with vehicles, self-driving automobiles may need to also be able to communicate with street and road infrastructure such as intersection control devices (i.e. traffic lights, temporary road construction warnings, detours, etc.). Due to all of the guidelines that municipalities may need to follow regarding their street and road infrastructure, it will be important to watch for updates to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD tells municipalities how to build a road, where and how traffic signs are located, traffic signals, lane markers and so forth.
Keep an eye on the roads. Currently, local governments are required to maintain their streets and roads in a reasonable fashion and respond to any notices of sign damage, obstruction or surface damage (pot holes). To prove your roadways and oversight fall into the reasonable zone it is necessary to conduct self-evaluations of the street/road infrastructure and take action on anything that is not satisfactory. Depending on how the law develops for evaluating fault in self-driving car cases, this roadway evaluation process may become more important in certain jurisdictional districts.
Stay a level ahead. Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) incorporated the SAE International’s definitions of automation into their policy. These define the level of a car’s automation from 0 (no automation) to 5 (full automation). The type of infrastructure roadways need for a Level 5 or 4 car compared to a 0, is drastic. By staying up to date with the MUTCD and following any new guidelines for self-driving automobiles, municipalities can continue to maintain safe roadways for the public.

Automation and the public sector

Aside from the concerns self-driving automobiles bring to municipalities’ preparation, they introduce a new spectrum of risk for when the time comes to introduce self-driving automobiles into their own fleets; from service vehicles to pool cars and more. While there is no guarantee municipalities’ fleets will adopt the self-driving technology to the fullest extent, it is guaranteed that they will need to communicate with the fully automated cars. For instance, if an ambulance or police officer is in emergency response mode, how will self-driving automobiles know to pull over? Municipalities can begin to prepare by developing their own policies to address issues such as procurement, public safety, testing, law enforcement and more.

Lastly, the integration of self-driving automobiles introduces many questions regarding liability. Who is liable when accidents involving self-driving automobiles occur? If the car is fully autonomous, is it a products liability issue or will other factors be included such as road infrastructure condition? The answer to most of these questions is still unknown. Currently, there is no right answer and it appears each incident is handled on a case by case basis.

As a municipality, to avoid any foreseeable issues and to continue to stay on the forefront of change, it is important to stay active and engaged in all policy making at the federal, state and local levels. What’s to come is far from known, but failure to take part in the discussion and adaption will ultimately lead to municipalities having to catch up.

Kenny Smith has worked exclusively in public entity risk control for the last 13 years of his 33 year insurance career. You can contact Kenny at kwsmith@onebeacongov.com.

See also:

A crash course in how auto technology is changing claims

Here’s how auto technology will change claims

There’s Never a Fee Unless We Get Money For You

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