Georgia Eyes Making Self-driving Cars Street Legal

Originally published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle - August 22, 2014
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Georgia could become the fifth state to make self-driving cars street legal.

By opening up its roads and highways to autonomous vehicle testing, Georgia would tap jobs and investment from an ecosystem of tech firms and automakers developing self-driving technologies.

Legislation that could come before the General Assembly this winter would provide opportunities for Atlanta companies that develop auto-related software and services. Fleets of self-driving cars — which wirelessly communicate with each other to manage traffic flow — could be the answer to Atlanta’s notorious gridlock.

“Over time, this is the real game changer we’re looking for,” said state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, a member of a House of Representatives study committee on autonomous vehicle technology that will begin meeting in a few weeks.

The committee will establish a legal structure for assessing fault in case of a crash involving a self-driving car, Setzler said. “If a car is on the street and a driver is not behind the wheel, a chain of responsibility needs to be in place so if something goes badly, things will be made right,” he said. The committee will make recommendations to the General Assembly by year-end.

Some luxury cars already boast semi-autonomous features, including automatic parallel parking, lane-departure alerts and adaptive cruise control.

“The self-driving car is the ultimate response to distracted driving,” said Thilo Koslowski, Gartner vice president. By 2016, at least three companies will announce launch dates for their first self-driving car models, he said. Carmakers are interested in reducing traffic accidents and keeping the automobile relevant. “When we have an aging population and younger consumers that aren’t interested in owning a vehicle, the auto industry needs to figure out different ways to attract customers,” Koslowski said.

Traffic congestion, auto accidents and new business opportunities are driving momentum for the development of autonomous vehicle technologies. A third of U.S. vehicle owners surveyed by Gartner in the first quarter said they are interested in having self-driving capabilities in their next vehicle.

Georgia, a transportation hub and research center, is suited for development of self-driving technologies, said Henrik Christensen, executive director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.

“Our infrastructure is already extended beyond capacity and [autonomous driving technologies] offer a great opportunity to address that,” he said.

Georgia Tech is doing research on autonomous driving technology, smart sensors, car safety systems and increased driver awareness.

“Large-scale experiments to explore interaction between regular cars and autonomous cars [are] interesting,” Christensen said. “As an urban campus, Georgia Tech is ideally suited to explore this.”

Michigan, California, Nevada and Florida have taken the lead — opening up to self-driving vehicle research.

Self-driving vehicles will be transformative for commuting, noted Stephen Fleming, a Georgia Tech vice president.

Autonomous vehicle development is being steered by the tech industry.

A lot of the processing is not going to happen in the car, but in the “cloud” and between vehicle systems.“It’s not ‘do we know how to build an engine and a transmission,’” Fleming said. “It’s ‘do we know how to build software networks that can negotiate with other networks in a secure and rapid manner’ — and that Atlanta knows how to do.”

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