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States taking the lead in “policy disruption” for AV and EV

Castro discusses AV/EV policy before opening of Washington Auto Show. Credit: John Gallagher/FreightWaves

Absent a coordinated federal policy on autonomous and electric vehicles, a handful of states are filling the gap by installing their own policies to drive investment in technology and infrastructure.

“It would be easier for rulemaking purposes if we all had a set of standards that we could operate in,” according to Angela Castro, director of government affairs for the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Southern Nevada. “But unfortunately, the federal agencies haven’t yet adopted a clear set of standards, so we’re all each doing our own thing to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The federal government is actually using us to figure out how they should be talking together.”

Castro was part of a government policy panel on how states are influencing technology that met on April 4 before the start of the Washington Auto Show in Washington, D.C.

Castro said RTC has several functions, including acting as metropolitan planning organization for southern Nevada and Las Vegas, where local regulations make it relatively easy to test, pilot and demonstrate autonomous and electric vehicle technologies.

“RTC understands that urban mobility, consumer demands and technological advancements are disrupting the transportation industry faster than any regulation, so as these disruptions occur in our industry there also needs to be a disruption in policies,” Castro said. “How do we better create the policies that will allow us to truly experience the benefits of these technology advances? All the research we’re getting back from our constituents is that they need to touch, feel, see and experience these technologies in order to understand and feel comfortable with them.”

Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission in Washington State, said one way to fill the policy gap at the state level is to illustrate potential safety benefits. Because 94 percent of fatal crashes are the result of human error, he said, “AV technology can have a significant impact on reducing those crashes and preserving life.”

Grondel noted that while some states have done little to prepare for AV from a policy perspective, others have already mandated working groups – as is the case in Washington, where Grondel serves as chairman. “From that group we have five subcommittees broken out to look at AV from a variety of perspectives, so we don’t get a myopic view.”

Amazon [NASDAQ: AMZN] recently announced a pilot project in Washington State testing autonomous delivery robots. The project could shed light on the question of to what extent private companies will be willing to share data with local governments.

In California, where roughly half of the country’s electric vehicles are registered and which is known for taking the initiative on transportation and environmental policy, is dealing with “range anxiety” from EV drivers. “We’re a bit behind, we have a goal of having a charging station every 20-50 miles” along stretches of Interstate 5, said Kevin Barker, deputy director of the Fuels and Transportation Division of the California Energy Commission. However, he said, “I’m worried about a lack of infrastructure.”

Not having more firm directives from the federal level should not prevent individual states from planning those investments in infrastructure that support AV and EV technology, said Kirk Steudle, senior vice president at Econolite, which Steudle estimates has manufactured a third of all traffic signals operating in North America.

“There’s huge pressure to rebuild the infrastructure that we have, but the incremental cost to include new technology – such as conduits and fiber – gets lost in the bidding process,” Steudle said during the discussion. “To make the infrastructure future-proof would take just a 1-2 percent marginal increase in the cost. It’s a mindset that has to be integrated as we think to the future.”

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.