Business & Economy

Q&A: Joe Segale is quietly paving the way for autonomous vehicles in Vermont

Joe Segale is planning an automated future for Vermont’s roads and regulations. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

A few years ago, Joe Segale, the Agency of Transportation’s director of policy planning and research, became Vermont’s go-to person on the topic of autonomous vehicles.

The transformation happened incrementally, as the concept of driverless cars entered the public consciousness and local and state officials around the country began wondering how to plan for them.

Now Segale is talking to public officials and others about how to prepare public infrastructure such as roads, traffic signals and signs to communicate with the vehicles, which Segale prefers to describe as “automated.”

He’s is also talking to agencies like the Vermont State Police and the Department of Motor Vehicles about issues like registration, insurance, ownership, and liability. And he’s pondering potential legislation on testing the vehicles in Vermont, a practice that is authorized in southern New England states.

VTDigger spent some time with Segale getting a status report on autonomous vehicles in Vermont. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Digger: How soon will we see autonomous vehicles in Vermont?

Joe Segale: This is still an emerging technology, but it is happening kind of fast. Investment in the technology has jumped significantly, and there are tests of automated vehicles going on around the country, mostly in urban areas like Pittsburgh, California, and Arizona. Some is going on in Boston.

There’s certainly debate about how fast it’s going to happen, but nobody really is questioning that it is going to happen.

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It’s helpful to understand that there are five different levels of automation. The first two levels are technology that’s out there right now, things like adaptive cruise control. It locks into the vehicle ahead of you, but the human is clearly in control. That’s not considered true automation.

Level three is a situation where the vehicle has the ability to drive itself, steer, accelerate, brake, go forwards, go backwards, but the human driver needs to be ready to take control at any time.

Level four is when vehicle can totally drive itself, and human doesn’t need to interact. The vehicle will have ability to get into a minimal risk condition; if there’s an issue it can pull over. In some cases human can still take control of car, but it will have defined areas, such as only on the interstate or only on a college campus.

Level five is completely automated; the human never takes control. The human tells it where it wants to go, and it’ll drop you off at the grocery store and go find a place to park.

Digger: Is Vermont any different from other states when it comes to these vehicles?

JS: We have 14,000 miles of roads in Vermont. The state owns about 3,000 of those, and the other 11,000 miles are owned and taken care of by the towns. There are 250 towns, and about 8,000 miles of their roads are dirt roads.

How are these vehicles going to operate on a gravel road? They don’t have center lines. And roads get covered with snow. The technology is going to have to be able to work everywhere, not just on pavement.

A bigger question is we’re a rural state. One model of the way these vehicles will be deployed is people may not own their own vehicle anymore. They may subscribe to a service, just like Uber or Lyft. Can those models work economically in a low-density place like Vermont?

An Uber autonomous Volvo on the road in San Francisco last year. WikiMedia Commons

Digger: What are the advantages of automated vehicles generally?

JS: All across the transportation sector, one reason we’re excited about this is because over 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error. If you remove the human error, you can really reduce the number of crashes.

Also, these automated vehicles can provide mobility for people who are isolated, people with disabilities that don’t allow them to drive; older people for whom it’s harder to drive at night, and kids, too, at a certain age.

Those mobility benefits are awesome, but will they be available in a low-density rural state like Vermont?

Digger: Are there any drawbacks?

JS: When we first started thinking about automated vehicles, folks said it should help reduce traffic congestion. The cars can travel closer together, and they’re just more efficient. There is one thought they’ll make traffic flow more efficient.

But at the same time, there can be more people driving, such as the older people, the people who don’t drive now, and there could be more cars on the road. For many, many years in transportation planning, we’ve been trying to reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles. Now we’ll have zero-occupancy vehicles; after the self-driving car drops someone off, they’ll have to return without another person.

And when time in the car will be productive time, however you want to spend it — you can read, you can take a nap — you’re going to be more willing to tolerate longer drives, which could put pressure on expanding out.

Digger: What might this look like?

JS: One scenario is everyone owns their own self-driving vehicle, just like we do today. The opposite is we all share the vehicles. Some of that sharing might be the Uber-type model.

Small shuttles are a huge opportunity in Vermont. Right now, it’s too expensive to run these shuttles in low-density areas, but if you don’t need a driver, that will reduce the cost. It could actually increase transit ridership if we put policies in place.

What is the state’s role?

JS: I’m trying to get organized to prepare for automated vehicles. At the federal level, they are responsible for ensuring vehicle equipment and vehicles themselves are safe and meet standards. That makes sense because you want vehicles to be standardized across the country.

At the state level, we’re responsible for licensing drivers, registering vehicles, and safety inspections. We’re responsible for traffic law or rules of the road, and establishing speed limits, and whether parking is allowed or not allowed, and establishing insurance requirements as well.

Can autonomous cars handle Vermont’s dirt roads? Photo by Stephen Flanders/Wikimedia Commons

Digger: What’s happening in the Legislature on this?

JS: Last year, the Legislature wasn’t ready to establish a standing committee on this, so they asked us to go out and talk to stakeholders. We summarized this in a report in November 2017.

Over the last year, I’ve been working with a smaller group from the Department of Motor Vehicles and the state police. We’re talking about registration and licensing, and we’re starting to outline potential legislation about the testing of automated vehicles in Vermont. How do we handle it if someone wants to come and test one of these vehicles on our roads? There is some value in having them test here, from the public acceptance perspective.

The other thing we’re trying to work on is once these vehicles become available on the market, what are specific things we have to change? Who buys the liability insurance, and who is liable in a crash? The manufacturer of the car? The owner?

I’m not sure we’ll have something to propose to the Legislature this year, but I’m pretty sure we’ll want to keep talking about it. We have time. It’s not like there are thousands of vehicles waiting to be registered in Vermont. We just want to make that once these cars are starting to be deployed and used by the general public, that someone from New York City in an automated vehicle can come to Vermont.

It’s sort of analogous to cell phones, when you can’t always get coverage. We want to make sure that once these vehicles become more and more in use, it doesn’t become a barrier in Vermont.

Digger: Is Vermont on par with most states in terms of readiness?

JS: Massachusetts has an executive order that allows for testing; Connecticut has passed a bill that allows municipalities to test the vehicles, and there is a process for approving it, and New York has a similar testing process. Our surrounding states don’t yet have legislation that allows the vehicles to be used by the general public.

Around the country, it just varies; Colorado, California, Nevada, Michigan, and Tennessee allow the use by the general public. They also have testing legislation.

Digger: Doesn’t that mean Vermont is behind?

JS; I don’t want to get defensive about that. I just want to make sure we do it right. It’s not like anyone is knocking on our door to test in Vermont. We are coordinating with our neighboring states and staying in touch with what is happening on the national level.

Digger: Why do you call them automated, not autonomous?

JS: It kind of goes back to those five levels. An autonomous vehicle is fully autonomous; that’s what that word means to me. Automated could be partially automated. So that’s a little bit of geekiness on my part, but there is a difference.

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Anne Wallace Allen

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