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For Autonomous Vehicle Policymaking, Next Steps Begin In Bloomington

AutonomouStuff car
Morton-based AutonomouStuff was one of the stakeholders present at the Feb. 7 kickoff event at State Farm Park in Bloomington.

As stakeholders consider the thorny public policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, State Farm doesn’t just want a seat at the table. It owns the table.

The insurer played host this month for Framing the Future of Mobility in Illinois Workshop kickoff event, held at State Farm Park in Bloomington. It was sponsored by the Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association, the Illinois Department of Transportation, and Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Stakeholders came from public, private, and academic institutions, splitting up into three areas: movement of goods, people, and agriculture.

There will be three more similar meetings, with the goal to draft one or more white papers by the end of summer 2020 to guide Illinois policymakers on autonomous vehicles (AVs).

Ryan Gammelgard
Credit State Farm
Ryan Gammelgard, a lawyer at State Farm, is one of the company's top voices on autonomous vehicles.

“It’s to start thinking about what are the big-picture public policy issues that impact the future of mobility in this state, and how can Illinois continue to position itself as a leader on all things mobility and transportation,” said Ryan Gammelgard, an attorney at State Farm who is one of the company’s top voices on autonomous vehicles. “So not just autonomous vehicles, but smart city initiatives. Micromobility issues. How people get from Point A to Point B.”

In 2018 IDOT launched its Autonomous Illinois initiative, establishing the state’s first testing program for autonomous vehicles and trying to pair up the communities, businesses, and state agencies most interested in the emerging self-driving technology.

These new stakeholder meetings will go deeper. One challenge with Highly Automated Vehicles (HAVs)—those at Levels 3-5 that can be in full control at least under certain conditions—will be establishing consistent regulations across states and voluntary technical standards applied universally across the HAV industry, according to a Governors Highway Safety Association report from 2019 funded by State Farm.

For insurers like State Farm, the challenge is even more complex because the insurance industry is largely regulated state-by-state.

“We need to be willing to have tough conversations (because) for the insurance industry this is a challenge but it’s also an opportunity. Let’s make sure everybody is as equipped as possible to make decisions on what a future insurance policy looks like,” Gammelgard said.

Shifting Liability

So what does the auto insurance policy of the future look like? Some experts predict the concept of liability will migrate from the individual to the manufacturer and technology companies that create the AVs.

“As you project into the future, if you have a Level 5 vehicle, which can drive itself anywhere at any time, there will be questions about who’s in control. And if it’s a manufacturer or company that owns that vehicle and is responsible for programming it, then I think it becomes more a product liability consideration. And that would change how some of our policies work,” Gammelgard said.

Ubiquitous Level 5 is still decades away. In the short term, State Farm and other auto insurers must prepare for Level 1-4 cars (where a driver still is in control to some degree) sharing the road with—and sometimes crashing into—traditional vehicles.

“Who ultimately has responsibility? And how do you tailor an insurance policy to address those different roles? That’s currently the evolution the insurance industry is in the middle of,” Gammelgard said. “It’s still a work in progress. There’s still a lot of research to be done.”

Public Perception

AVs also still face a challenge gaining public trust.

That 2019 report funded by State Farm notes that “many drivers and road users don’t understand how and when Highly Automated Vehicles will be deployed and how HAVs obey traffic laws.” It said “the public’s lack of understanding results in part because of the many mixed, confusing, or inaccurate messages regarding AVs and HAVs.”

One idea floated in the report is for “movies, television, and other media to incorporate implicit AV messages in their programming. This strategy successfully promoted the use of designated drivers in the 1990s. More recently, it promotes belt use by making sure that all car occupants seen in media are buckled up.”

In the last year, Gammelgard said, auto manufacturers and tech companies have started to focus on how they validate the safety and effectiveness of higher levels of AVs.

“Manufacturers and tech companies know that in order to continue to advance this technology, you gotta get people who are actually willing to get into one of these vehicles. There’s been a lot of focus in the past year—more than ever before—on things like, how do you prove out this technology works? How do you create a framework to assess some of the safety features that are built into these vehicles?” Gammelgard said.

He added: “Until that gets addressed a little bit better, you’re probably going to have continued levels of mistrust on the public level.”

FULL interview

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.