Autonomous vehicles are coming. Soon---and New Mexico needs to be ready.
That was the message from a recent summit on autonomous, or driverless, vehicles organized by the state Department of Transportation. Local officials, technology experts and even industry representatives all agreed legislators need to understand the technology before changing laws or other policies.
Earlier this year, Sen. James White, R-Albuquerque, introduced a memorial asking NMDOT to organize the summit and get New Mexico ready for autonomous vehicles.
While some predict widespread use of fully autonomous vehicles is decades away, White said it could be closer to 5-to-10 years away. And in fact, some semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the road today.
“The industry is fast defining what we do here in this realm,” Charles Remke, director of New Mexico Department of Transportation ITS, told attendees.
Tyler Svitak, the Connected and Autonomous Technology Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Transportation, said states need to define what they want and need from autonomous vehicles---before the fast-growing industry does it for them. Industry is open to partnerships with states, he said, but states must first establish goals and lay out a strategy.
While commercially available vehicles that can safely drive without any human interaction are years away, semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the roads, including on New Mexico’s highways. Automated semi trucks cruise across I-10 in southern New Mexico on regular trips between Los Angeles and El Paso, TX.
Jonny Morris is the Head of Public Policy at Embark, the company that operates those trucks to deliver air conditioning equipment.
He explained that the company uses the automated systems from “exit to exit” on highways, though human drivers still navigate surface streets in cities. Even when automated, those trucks still have CDL-licensed drivers who are required to have their hands on the wheel at all times and to take over if there is a problem.
The SAE, an organization of scientists and engineers in the automotive industry, has five levels of automation with cars. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which adopted the standards, Level 1 includes vehicles with automatic braking and cruise control. Level 2, or partial automation, cars assist with steering or acceleration, but the driver must stay engaged.