Northwest

Nobody seems to know if self-driving cars are being tested on Washington roads

More than two years after Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order to encourage testing of self-driving vehicles, the state Department of Licensing says it doesn’t know how many of them have been on Washington roads.

That’s because the state didn’t mandate that companies disclose information after they fill out a one-page form certifying that they will comply with requirements to test self-driving cars and trucks.

The lack of data means that DOL doesn’t have records of where testing occurred, for how long or how many vehicles were involved.

The department also can’t definitively answer questions about whether any self-driving vehicles have been involved in accidents or been ticketed. State officials say they don’t think any have. They also say they aren’t aware of any on-road testing since 2017, although Waymo, the self-driving technology company owned by Google’s parent company, told The News Tribune it tested in 2018 in Kirkland.

Now, the state is debating whether to require companies to disclose testing information. State agencies are anticipating an increase in activity as companies across the nation reach a stage when they will test their self-driving technology against rain, snow and the often-rugged terrain of a state like Washington.

Beau Perschbacher, DOL’s legislative and policy director, said subcommittee members of a state autonomous vehicle work group — who are crafting proposals for the operation of self-driving vehicles — have asked him how many are being tested on public roadways and where and if there have been any collisions or traffic violations.

Perschbacher said his response has been: “Actually, we don’t have that data.”

“The whole question of ‘are they safe?’ is a thing that people are curious about,” he said at the Sept. 17 meeting of two subcommittees of the state autonomous vehicle work group.

“My barometer has always been, ‘I don’t want what happened in Arizona to happen here,’” Perschbacher added.

He referred to a self-driving vehicle that Uber was testing last year in Tempe, Arizona that struck and killed a woman walking a bicycle across the street. Police said a safety operator was behind the wheel but was watching a television show on her phone.

“We have all of these things in place to make sure drivers don’t smack into someone driving on the road. We don’t really have that for autonomous vehicles yet,” Perschbacher said.

Capt. Dan Hall of the Washington State Patrol district that covers Pierce and Thurston counties is among those who want companies doing testing to provide information about when and where it will occur.

“It seems like it’s just something as a state that is trying to get a grasp of autonomous vehicles and how they are going to impact our citizens that we don’t even know how many are being tested out there,” Hall said. He co-chairs the safety subcommittee of the state work group.

Two of the companies that self-certified in Washington said they tested self-driving cars on state roads in 2017, according to a recent survey. The subcommittee of the state work group said the purpose of the survey — which yielded answers from seven of the 12 firms that have self-certified to test — was to “facilitate open, collaborative discussion with the companies.”

Lighter end of regulations

States have varying level of requirements for companies that test self-driving cars and trucks, which use computing power, cameras, radar, lidar, and lasers to navigate roadways.

California, for instance, requires companies to report crashes and incidents when an operator takes control of a self-driving vehicle. Florida this year enacted a law that said licensed operators are not required in autonomous cars.

Washington is considered on the lighter end of the regulatory spectrum, said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission.

Inslee’s 2017 executive order said state agencies with regulatory powers “shall support the safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on Washington’s public roads.”

The governor said autonomous vehicles had the potential to transform society, from “reducing injuries and saving lives lost to vehicle collisions, reclaiming time spent in traffic, maximizing our ability to move people and goods quickly and safely throughout the state, improving mobility for the elderly and disabled, reducing property damage and serving as an important tool in our efforts to combat climate change.”

Tara Lee, an Inslee spokeswoman, said in an email: “The governor’s executive order provided us with data about who was interested in (autonomous vehicle) testing that we otherwise wouldn’t have, and it set parameters for the safe testing and operation of (autonomous vehicles).”

To test self-driving vehicles on public roadways in Washington, companies have to fill out a one-page DOL form certifying that they comply with four requirements. The firm’s name then is included on the agency’s website

For companies testing with an operator in the vehicle — someone behind the steering wheel who can take control when needed — the state requires a trained employee, contractor or other person authorized by the company developing the self-driving technology.

The other requirements are:

Vehicles must be monitored.

An operator must have the ability to direct the vehicle’s movement if assistance is required.

Operators must have a U.S. driver license and proof of insurance.

DOL said it doesn’t review or approve the self-certification forms. There’s no fee to register nor limits on the type of vehicles tested or on the ability of out-of-state companies to test.

Perschbacher, the DOL legislative and policy director, said the process adhered to the governor’s executive order, which he described as “not an overly burdensome process, sort of a light touch.”

‘No real-time data collection’

A 2018 law directed the Washington State Transportation Commission to convene an executive and legislative work group. That panel is working on recommendations to the commission, which in turn reports to the Legislature annually on possible policies, laws and rules to “support the operation of (autonomous vehicles) in the state.”

One of the state work group’s subcommittees recently surveyed the 12 firms that filled out the self-certification form. Seven responded. Five did not. The state Department of Transportation has a representative on the subcommittee that worked on the survey, but WSDOT is not collecting data on testing of self-driving vehicles.

“There currently is no ongoing, real-time data collection within Washington,” said Stephanie Sams, DOL’s legislative and special projects manager.

Ted Bailey is the manager of WSDOT’s program on how high-tech vehicles can improve the state’s transportation system and communities. Bailey wrote in an email to The News Tribune: “We aren’t aware (of) any current on-road testing activities in WA state since 2017.”

Who’s been testing?

Waymo is a self-driving technology company that was spun off from Google in 2016. It did testing in 2017 in the Kirkland area, according to a Sept. 6 memo from a subcommittee of the state work group that summarized the survey results.

Reached for comment by The News Tribune, Waymo spokeswoman Alexis Georgeson provided more detailed information. She said the company announced in early 2016 it would begin testing self-driving cars in Kirkland and contacted several government officials, including Inslee, the mayor of Kirkland, WSDOT and the State Patrol about its plans.

“Since then we’ve been back in the state for testing during the 2017 and 2018 rain seasons, and we’ve stayed in close communications with the appropriate state and local officials,” Georgeson said.

Silicon Valley-based Waymo said vehicle sensors were tested to determine how they responded in rain. The sensors help answer questions about where the vehicle is, what’s around it and what’s going to happen next in traffic, according to Waymo.

Virginia-based Torc Robotics in 2017 did a cross-country trip with a self-driving Lexus sport utility vehicle that ended in Seattle. Founded in 2007, the company has worked on autonomous technology to “keep humans out of danger in hazardous situations,” such as self-driving vehicles that could be used in mining and in the military to detect improvised explosive devices while troops stayed at a safe distance.

The SUV rode on Interstate 5 and I-90 with a trained safety driver and “there were no traffic incidents of any kind during the entire trip,” Eileen Quirk Baumann, president of a firm which does marketing for Torc Robotics, told The News Tribune.

A third company went through the self-certification process, but tested trucks last January on I-5 from Arlington to Linden that are not defined as self-driving or autonomous.

The system tested by Peloton Technology is “not a highly-automated vehicle technology,” but it enables a truck to closely follow another — an aerodynamic process referred to as “platooning” — to improve safety and efficiency. The California-based company is working with PACCAR, a Bellevue-based truck manufacturer, on what it says are the two biggest challenges facing the industry — crashes and fuel use.

Amanda Anderson, external affairs manager for Peloton Technology, referred to the trucks — which had drivers in each — as “level one.” The Society of Automotive Engineers classifies automation levels in vehicles from zero to five — with full automation at five. Level one is not a partial or full autonomous vehicle. It’s defined as one “controlled by the driver, but some driving assist features may be included in the vehicle design.”

The five companies that did not respond to the survey from the subcommittee of the state work group are California-based NVIDIA Corp., Drivent, which is working on non-collision barriers to widespread use of autonomous vehicles and is located in Bellevue; Simple Solutions, which listed Tacoma as its address; Dooblai, a software company in Redmond-Bellevue; and Bellevue-based Galilei.

Of the 12 companies that filled out the self-certification form, 10 said a human operator would be present during testing. Drivent and Simple Solutions said testing would occur with and without an operator in the vehicle. A Drivent executive would not discuss testing with The News Tribune, saying the firm needed to “maintain trade secrets.” Simple Solutions could not be reached for comment.

As co-chair of the state work group’s licensing subcommittee, Perschbacher is grappling with the issue of whether companies that test self-driving vehicles should be required to disclose what they’re doing.

A City of Seattle official expressed interest in getting information on where and when self-driving vehicles would be tested, saying the city would use it for “general public awareness,” to brief police officers involved in traffic enforcement; and to notify the companies, for example, that a lane on a downtown street was closed and there would be a better place to test.

When the subcommittee of the state work group asked the survey questions to companies that have self-certified to test, they included what the work group could do to support their efforts.

As summarized, the companies’ response was: “Encourage minimal disclosure requirements to maintain a competitive marketplace. Disclosure of proprietary information when comparing companies that are competing in this space can be problematic when certain things are (taken) out of context and misinterpreted.”

Balancing innovation and safety

Michael Schutzler, chief executive officer of the Washington Technology Industry Association, said requiring information about testing may not be warranted now.

Schutzler said he had not heard of any level five self-driving vehicles — ones in which the vehicle is capable of all driving functions under all conditions — on the roads in Washington.

“If you’re going to have autonomous vehicles actually driving themselves in the state of Washington, there are for sure a set of county, state and municipal-based rules that need to be put in place for that,” said Schutzler, co-chair of the state work group’s system technology and data security subcommittee.

“But for purposes of testing, I think at this stage of the game, knowledge of testing is really more about helping municipalities support good and adequate testing to make sure the state of Washington has an opportunity to participate in the evolving industry,” he said.

Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, said state law requires the panel to make recommendations about autonomous vehicles to the Legislature annually by Nov. 15 through 2023.

The debate over requiring information about testing self-driving vehicles is a search for “balance between wanting to encourage innovation and companies coming to Washington state to test, but also balancing that against the need for public information and public safety,” she said.

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