Op-Ed: NJ Needs to Break Gridlock on Autonomous-Car Legislation

Avi Kelin | August 13, 2019 | Opinion
‘Other states are passing us in research and development and our state’s autonomous-car movement is stalling. We need to do more.’

Avi Kelin
We all know the frustration of being stuck in traffic.

Trapped behind the wheel of your car with nowhere to go. The Garden State Parkway or New Jersey Turnpike feel like one big parking lot with brake lights glowing as far as the eye can see. With traffic on New Jersey roads increasing every year, our overcrowded roads are becoming more jammed.

Consider this: Over the most recent Memorial Day weekend, 943,000 New Jersey residents used cars in their holiday travel. That is a lot of gridlock! If you dislike being stuck in traffic, maybe you think about the day when cars will drive themselves. The arrival of self-driving cars can bring relief to our state’s traffic-weary drivers. We just need to get to that point.

Right now, we are lagging behind in New Jersey, finding ourselves in the position of playing catch-up and losing time — a lot like those cars stalled on our state’s highways.

Consider that 37 states have either enacted legislation, or have seen governors issue executive orders, related to autonomous vehicles.

California, for example, has a robust testing regulatory system in place that has already issued permits to more than 60 different companies for public-road testing with drivers and one permit for public-road testing without a driver.

Light years away from a road test

On the other end of the spectrum, we are light years away from even being able to road test. New Jersey, for instance, passed its first law related to autonomous vehicles only this year. Even then, the approved legislation doesn’t go as far as permitting autonomous vehicles on New Jersey’s roads. Instead, it establishes a task force to study autonomous vehicles, including participation from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the state Motor Vehicle Commission, and New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety.

As important as this task force and its recommendations will be, the law in New Jersey still requires a human operator for vehicles. There are a few bills that have been considered that would change that, but nothing has passed.

Other states are passing us in research and development and our state’s autonomous-car movement is stalling. We need to do more. After all, self-driving cars can do more than offer convenience; safety is a major consideration.

Self-driving cars will not eliminate accidents entirely but removing human drivers from behind the steering wheel could go a long way toward making things safer. Computers do not get intoxicated or distracted. Humans, on the other hand, do.

Nearly 32,000 Americans die in car accidents each year. An additional 2.2 million people are injured. The nation’s 10 million annual accidents come at a collective cost of $230 billion. Safety improvements make it crucial that consumers adopt self-driving cars as soon as the technology is ready.

Other questions need to be addressed, as well.

Insurance issues

How might insurance, safety testing and registration all work with self-driving cars? Also, when wrecks do occur, who should be held responsible? Car manufacturers, under a theory of product liability, or car owners?

Either way, it must be decided before autonomous cars go on sale so insurance costs can be factored into the purchase price, spreading risk among consumers. Also, national, or at least regional, cooperation is needed. If each individual state sets minimum safety standards, there is a risk that a New Jersey-registered autonomous car will be illegal to drive in New York or Pennsylvania.

Ideally, the federal government would promulgate regulations governing the safety of autonomous cars.

In New Jersey, however, things are moving far too slowly. Until we upshift autonomous-car legislation dramatically, traffic in New Jersey will only continue to get worse as the future of transportation in America passes us by.