In recent history, the state of Nevada has been at the forefront of recognizing the role autonomous vehicles will have in our transportation future. In 2011, Nevada became the first state in the US to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles by passing Assembly Bill 511. Then to encourage further development of autonomous vehicles, in 2017, the state lawmakers made Assembly Bill 69 law, a measure that authorized fully autonomous vehicles to be tested or operated on state highways, as long as certain safety requirements are met.
Last week, Nevada took another step in evaluating and licensing of autonomous vehicles during an Assembly Growth and Infrastructure Committee hearing to consider Assembly Bill 412. The bill is a measure that would update sections of Nevada law to reflect technological advances in the autonomous vehicle industry.
The language in AB412 pertains specifically to “neighborhood occupantless vehicles,” defined in the bill as a low-speed vehicle not designed or intended to carry passengers.
Nuro is a Silicon Valley-based technology company that designs, tests and manufactures autonomous delivery vehicles. A Nuro spokesperson helped present AB412 to the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure Committee. Starting last week, the distinctly narrow, electric and fully autonomous R2 delivery vehicle began delivering pizzas for Domino’s in Houston. The futuristic R2 and driverless Toyota Prius’ have also been making deliveries for Kroger and CVS in the Houston area, or the Silicon Bayou as it’s known.
Nuro also has working vehicles in northern California and Phoenix. Last year, the R2 transported medicine, supplies and food to COVID patients and medical staff in Sacramento and in San Mateo at the height of the pandemic. Beyond grocery and food delivery, Nuro also announced a partnership with CVS to deliver prescriptions and other products.
In Nevada, adding the terms “operator” and “neighborhood occupantless vehicle” to motor vehicle laws as proposed in AB412, would enable Nuro to potentially bring delivery robotic vehicles to Nevada.
“This bill would help companies like Nuro and others expand operations in the state, introduce novel vehicle designs like R2, and provide contactless delivery for more people who may not have convenient access to fresh groceries and other essentials today,” wrote a Nuro spokesperson in an email.
So how does pizza delivery work?
“We’re delivering to select Domino’s customers in Houston with our custom autonomous vehicle, R2,” wrote a Nuro spokesperson. “Select customers in the area can choose autonomous delivery during the online order process on dominos.com via desktop or mobile. Customers will receive a text with a unique PIN. Once R2 arrives, customers will be prompted to enter their PIN on the bot’s touchscreen. R2’s doors will then gently open upward, revealing the customer’s Domino’s order.
“This launch is part of our long term partnership that will scale to many customers in many locations. Our goal is really to learn how customers respond to the service – what they love about it and what we can improve.”
Autonomous vehicle technology is evolving rapidly, and at this point in it’s evolution, deploying delivery robots is akin to building an aircraft while flying it.
Dr. Kara Kockelman is professor of Transportation Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and said that the day is coming when people will safely ride in autonomous vehicles, like taxis.
“The vehicle would route itself while the occupants can do what they want to do: sleep, work or talk, so it’s a great opportunity for people in what’s like a minibus,” Kockelman said by phone. “The first set of fleets will probably be shared fleets that are managed by a formal, expert fleet manager that’s checking the algorithms and the sensors daily to make sure everything is positioned and working well and keeping the interiors clean like a bus agency might do.”
Most automated vehicles use a series of convergent technologies such as radar, lidar and cameras to take in information and make sense of its surroundings in real time.
“So while radar uses a radio transmission to detect and sense what’s in the range around you, lidar is light detection and ranging,” Kockelman said. “‘Now, as costs have fallen dramatically over the last 10 years, they’re putting smaller units on the four corners of the vehicle and all of that information is fused, so it’s helpful to have that redundancy of information.”
That’s not to say that automated vehicles don’t carry risk, which is why to date, up to 25 states and Washington, DC have passed or considered legislation regarding their testing and use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At some point in the future, however, this patchwork of state legislation will have to be considered at the federal level.
“Licensing of automated vehicles is always done at the state level, so states are really important here,” Kockelman said. “States are primarily the ones signalling what’s expected, what technology standards are going to be used and how vehicles will be tested for safety. Eventually, the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is going to need to make more rules in the coming years.”
One risk to these self-driving vehicles is automated braking. Although technology has advanced to better protect passengers inside vehicles, the primary risk really comes to pedestrians or bicyclists outside of the automated vehicle.
“In most cases, makes and models with [automated braking] technology are seeing other vehicles, but we really need to encode pedestrians in our testing and we really should be requiring it,” Kockelman said. “We require electronic stability control and that helps save a lot of lives inside the vehicle. These AV manufacturers are very nervous about hitting a pedestrian, because [pedestrians] might abuse the fact that these are self-driving vehicles and may purposefully jaywalk in front of such a vehicle, assuming that it can see them and will stop for them.”
According to Kockelman, an additional risk manufacturers and lawmakers must consider would be assigning liability if a crash or collision were to occur. Passengers in an autonomous vehicle would not typically be responsible, unless they were to specifically manipulate the vehicle to misperform, therefore the manufacturer would primarily be the one held accountable.
Consequently, laws such as the proposed AB412 are tailored for “low-speed vehicles,” ensuring safer traveling speeds for these automated vehicles on roads with posted speed limits no greater than 35 mile per hour.
“One way to protect people is to not go very fast so if you do hit something, whatever that is, it’s not damaged dramatically,” Kockelman said. “If you keep [automated vehicles] at low speed, it’s hard to hurt the occupants and it’s also hard to really hurt somebody on the outside. So those are the things being done to mitigate those risks.”
Risks aside, the advantages of implementing autonomous vehicles are significant in both time and safety, particularly considering that automated vehicles are reliably safer than their man-operated counterparts.
“The average licensed driver in this country probably drives like 10,000 miles a year and if you’re driving at 35 miles an hour on average with a lot of stopping, you might be spending 3,000 hours a year of time driving,” Kockelman said. “Then with crash savings, the average person in this country spends $3,000 a year in crash costs, lost productivity, pain and suffering and mechanic’s fees. That ends up being almost a trillion dollars a year in loss and if we could get that number down by 80-90 percent by shifting to self-driving, that would be tremendously valuable.”
According to Nuro, the company is exploring a variety of potential expansion sites in line with its broader growth plans, including a testing site in Las Vegas. Enabling laws are key.
Over the next decade, as technology improves and more states pass legislation that enables further autonomous vehicle testing and deployment, state legislators across the country will have to recognize this developing industry, federal regulators too. As an example, passage of AB412 would bring Nevada law up to speed with the latest technology.
“Nevada remains a leader in innovation and autonomous vehicles. Since passing the first-in-the-nation AV statute in 2011, the state’s leaders have continued to build out a regulatory framework that enables the safe deployment of this technology in a way that helps Nevadans,” wrote the Nuro spokesperson.
For Dr. Kockelman, once the technology is more broadly accepted by the public, the utility of autonomous vehicles for consumers and businesses alike, will drive demand.
“Constituents are going to want [autonomous vehicles] because driving is a really tedious task and it’s the least safe thing we do each day,” Kockelman said. “If you care about safety, which is supposed to be a major mission for our public agencies, then absolutely [legislators] should be trying to get this [industry] off the ground to protect people from drunk driving, distracted driving, fatigued driving and nighttime driving, which is especially risky.”
Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.