Lawmaker: Growth of driverless cars depends on broadband

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Jul. 10—They may be passing you on some of the state's busiest roadways — autonomous vehicles able to drive with little or no human involvement.

The days of fully driverless cars are still years ahead, experts say, but some companies in New Mexico are testing such vehicles with drivers behind the wheel as part of a new state law.

House Bill 270, approved by legislators in the 2021 regular session and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, is the first step toward legalizing the potential manufacture and use of autonomous vehicles, said Rep. Patti Lundstrom, D-Gallup. She was one of the sponsors of HB 270.

She told members of the interim Legislative Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee last week that down the line, autonomous vehicles could help transport goods when there are supply chain issues, which has happened in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's the wave of the future," Lundstrom said, adding the need to upgrade broadband access to make autonomous vehicle systems work is "going to cost a lot of money, I think."

Some companies were testing driverless vehicles before the law went into effect, she said. Now, they must notify the state Department of Transportation five days in advance of any test runs.

The vehicles could help create a new industry with new jobs, state Department of Transportation officials told the subcommittee members.

Autonomous vehicles use a combination of sensors and software to drive and navigate.

There are five levels of autonomous vehicles. On the first and most basic level, a person drives the vehicle but the automated system is capable of helping with minor actions.

At Level 2, the car can perform more driving functions with a person monitoring progress and taking control most of the time.

The automated system can take control of much of the driving process at Level 3, with the person in the driver's seat monitoring.

The car can operate on its own in certain environments at Level 4, but the driver must be present and ready to take over if necessary.

Level 5 is truly autonomous, with the car potentially driving on its own without any person onboard.

The subcommittee discussion came just weeks after a study found automakers had reported almost 400 crashes of vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems over a 10-month period, from July 2021 into

May 2022.

Charles Remkes, intelligent transportation systems operations chief at the state Department of Transportation, said he only knows of two crashes involving autonomous vehicles in New Mexico — both minor events that caused no injuries.

Remkes said some testing of Level 4 autonomous vehicles is occurring on state highways, but no autonomous car manufacturer is ready to go to Level 5.

One of the biggest challenges testers are discovering involves autonomous cars recognizing and navigating construction zones. That's because the cars may be programmed to read stop signs and traffic lights but not human hand signals.

There will be other challenges ahead, he and some lawmakers on the committee said, from regulating the use of driverless cars to figuring out how to adapt the vehicles to local, tribal and rural streets — especially dirt roads.

Jerry P. Valdez, executive director of the Department of Transportation, said it's likely most autonomous vehicles will be electric.

Some autonomous vehicle advocates say such vehicles could help cut down on traffic accidents involving distracted or drunken drivers. A 2020 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that would account for about 34 percent of all car and truck crashes.

"In Albuquerque, we'd be safer in autonomous vehicles than what we have now," joked Rep. Debra Sariñana, an Albuquerque Democrat.