Self-driving cars

Autonomous self-driving cars can recognize road signs.

Self-driving cars may soon be on their way to Idaho.

As 29 other states have expanded laws relating to the increase in self-driving vehicles, Idaho has taken its first steps toward the same point. In January, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter ordered the formation of a committee through the Idaho Transportation Department and several other agencies and businesses to investigate the current state of autonomous automobiles.

The report from the Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Testing and Deployment Committee was released Nov. 1 and encouraged the government to expand the testing and use of these vehicles.

“The emphasis was on keeping safety at the top of our minds as we looked into the technologies and look into deploying those down the road, even if it’s way down the road,” said Matthew Conde, government affairs director for AAA in Idaho.

Conde was assigned to the main committee by Otter along with representatives of local police districts, car manufacturers and trucking companies. The order also created a technical committee made of a range of members of the Idaho Transportation Department and other Idahoans.

One of the major findings of the report was the challenges posed by the current state of Idaho’s road system. Idaho is currently $417 million short in road repair funding and other infrastructure needs. Creating a road system that could be easily navigated by self-driving vehicles would require major changes to road quality and signage, as well as making sure all the roads would be covered by wireless networks for the vehicle’s computers.

“When you talk about a smart vehicle being able to communicate in those rural areas, obviously we have a big infrastructure need there,” Conde said.

Self-driving cars would also introduce plenty of legal and insurance issues for the state. The Idaho State Police and other officers on the committee focused on the effect this could have on traffic laws, such as drunk driving.

“Right now it is illegal to operate a vehicle while drunk. Could that potentially be changed if the vehicle is doing the driving and not the driver?” ITD spokeswoman and technical committee member Jennifer Gonzalez asked.

Not all members of the committees were happy with the final results of the report. Don Kostelec represented the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance on the technical subcommittee and claimed that he was not invited to the meetings until October, by which point the major points of the report had already been decided. His group had requested to join the committee to address the safety issues posed by self-driving vehicles to others along the roadway.

“I didn’t really feel there was meaningful input about the safety of the most vulnerable people and riders on the road,” Kostelec said.

He was against the possible testing of autonomous vehicles on small public streets. Earlier this year, a woman in Arizona was killed when she was struck by a self-driving Uber during a test. The final report from the autonomous vehicle committee included sections on driver and passenger safety issues, but not on pedestrian safety.

Despite the report’s shortcomings, Kostolec was still optimistic about the future of self-driving vehicles. He explained that those vehicles could be taught the unofficial rules of Idaho roads, such as the unmarked crosswalk at many intersections, and follow them with more consistency and caution than regular drivers do.

The next step toward self-driving vehicles is up to Governor-elect Brad Little. As the next governor, he can choose whether to follow the committee’s recommendations, form a new committee of his own or take any other steps.

Contact Brennen with news tips at 208-542-6711.

Load comments