For Legislature, discussion on autonomous vehicles just down the road

July 27, 2017

Northern New Mexico may be known for its low riders. But is it ready for driverless cars?

As the world’s biggest automobile manufacturers and tech companies invest in developing autonomous vehicles that can navigate without a human steering a wheel or pressing a pedal, some state officials are calling on lawmakers to put in place policies to address technologies they say could radically change transportation.

Nineteen states have passed laws regulating autonomous vehicles, and governors in three more states have set out policies through executive order. But New Mexico does not have any rules for such machines, leaving companies that might hope to put autonomous vehicles on the road in New Mexico with a host of tricky questions.

How do you insure such a vehicle and register it, for example?

Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Church said the governor has tasked him with developing policies on automated vehicles that legislators can take up during the coming lawmaking session early next year.

“By the time the industry hits us, even if we can participate in some of the test, we’ll have laws in place,” Church told reporters after a legislative hearing Tuesday afternoon at the Capitol.

During the hearing, Charles Remkes, manager of the department’s intelligent transportation systems program, depicted an industry that poses a range of regulatory questions while also offering the prospect of improving the flow and safety of traffic and the efficiency of transporting goods.

The federal government is responsible for regulating safety standards. But it is still up to states to decide how to register autonomous vehicles, inspect the machines and license drivers — if at all.

“In a lot of ways, we’re just now starting a conversation,” Remkes said.

Boosters see the industry not only as a force that New Mexico might eventually have to grapple with as technology changes and major auto companies from Ford to Nissan to Subaru invest in driverless vehicles. They also see the new technology as an opportunity for economic development.

“There’s a lot of activity going on and New Mexico is not part of it,” said Sen. James White, R-Albuquerque, who testified Tuesday about what he sees as a need for the state to prepare for driverless technology.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation designated 10 proving grounds for testing autonomous vehicles, including several major roads in Texas’ biggest cities as well as a port of entry in El Paso. Meanwhile, Google has launched an autonomous car program in Phoenix.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry issued a directive earlier this month calling on the municipal government in New Mexico’s largest city to support testing as well as pilot programs for self-driving vehicles. A firm in that city, TriLumina, is also working on technologies for the automated vehicle industry. But the policy still requires preapproval for any trips on public roads.

Changes in vehicle technology are coming, though, officials insisted.

Church said a test of what is known as connected vehicle technology may roll through New Mexico on Interstate 10 in the next few months. Such technology allows vehicles to communicate electronically with one another to improve navigation and operation.

Still, the very idea of self-driving cars gave some legislators pause.

“When,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, asked no one in particular, “does mankind’s brain become obsolete?”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.