September 17, 2018 3:00 PM, EDT

Connecticut to Offer Self-Driving Pilot Program in Four Communities

Poll Suggests National Acceptance of Technology Is Waning as Safety Concerns Rise in Wake of Accidents
Self-driving car delivers groceriesA self-driving car delivers groceries to a customer in San Jose, Calif. (Ryan Nakashima/Associated Press)

Self-driving cars could be on the road in large numbers sooner than anyone expected — possibly by 2021 — even if public support for autonomous vehicles appears to be dropping.

BOD, an international business adviser, recently published a paper predicting the technology behind driverless cars may be ready as soon as 2021 while warning that the legal and regulatory framework that allows them to operate is lagging.

Meanwhile, a new survey by a national travel insurance provider found only 43% of Americans are interested in using a self-driving car, down from 53% last year.

“Based on consumer perceptions, our survey reveals an uncertain future for self-driving cars,” said Dan Durazo, director of communications for Allianz Global Assistance.

Connecticut is offering a pilot program in four communities — Stamford has applied for one of the slots — to test mapping and installation of the GPS infrastructure needed to make a driverless car’s artificial intelligence function.

A state task force is planning for a future in which driverless vehicles become common on Connecticut’s streets and highways.

The task force, staffed with state department heads, lawyers, University of Connecticut researchers and lawmakers, is charged with offering recommendations on several issues, including safety regulations, liability and insurance questions.

“There are so many benefits,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s transportation committee.

“People were skeptical about the debit card we now use every day,” Boucher said. “I think [driverless cars] are in the same stage now. People are just thinking about the problems.”

Possible uses for self-driving vehicles include driverless buses, cars in which commuters work on laptops while being driven to work and autonomous shuttles transporting elderly and disabled residents to appointments.

Differing Results

BDO, also know as Binder Dijker Otte, said interviews with ride-hailing services and driverless car suppliers revealed the technology may be ready for wide scale use by 2021.

The Brussels-based business adviser noted car manufacturers and ride-hailing companies have been spending billions on the emerging industry.

But BDO stressed that the regulatory framework to accommodate driverless cars still is in its infancy.

“While driverless technology may be ready to roar out of the starting blocks, rules and regulations are still lagging somewhat behind,” BDO noted in a release outlining its findings “Nor do they look like they will necessarily be ready any time soon.”

BDO said challenges facing the driverless industry include insurance liability, how much the cars will cost to operate, how companies can use them on behalf of employees, taxation, bookkeeping and auditing.

Still, the rapid advance of driverless car technology — a computer uses GPS signals to navigate and drive the car — may be outpacing the public’s acceptance of the technology.

Allianz, which sells various types of insurance to travelers, found that only 43% of Americans are interested in utilizing self-driving cars, down from 53% in a similar survey conducted last year.

The survey also found that 71% of those polled were worried about safety, compared with 65% last year. Other reasons for concern include the cost of the cars, a lack of familiarity and bad publicity.

A recent Pew Research Center survey also showed soft support for self-driving cars.

That survey found that 39% of those questioned were not sure whether the vehicles would make roads safer or more dangerous and 87% favored requiring that a human always be behind the wheel to take control if needed.

Allianz said two fatal accidents in March involving self-driving Uber cars could have “dampened confidence and excitement” over auto-piloted vehicles.

“Many Americans are far from being convinced that self-driving cars can be operated safely on our streets,” Durazo said.

“As our Future of Travel survey last year indicated, more travelers would feel safer on a rocket to space than being a passenger in a self-driving vehicle,” Durazo added.

Still, Allianz also said companies continue to invest billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle technology.

Moving Forward

C. Zak Hyde, a senior policy adviser for the state Office of Policy and Management, agreed with BOD’s findings.

“I can’t say when it will be ready,” Hyde said of the technology. “But this is very interesting. The technology has made vast advancements.”

Hyde said a regulatory format must be resolved and enacted to accommodate driverless cars, including establishing insurance and liability standards.

The state pilot program so far has drawn two applications, from Stamford and Windsor Locks, and several letters of interest, Hyde said.

Stamford has asked to test how shuttles would work around the city’s transportation center.

“We have not approved anything yet,” said Hyde, whose office is coordinating the pilot. “We are still reviewing.”

Boucher said the possibilities for driverless cars are immense, including dedicated highway lanes, shuttles and allowing elderly drivers to stay active and mobile.

“The technology will be here before the regulatory process,” Boucher said.

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