Self-Driving Car Race Continues Amid Accidents

Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order this week that will allow companies to test self-driving cars on all public roads in the state, including scenarios without a backup driver onboard. Kasich, whose parents were killed by a drunk driver in 1987, points to the potential to significantly improve road safety and position Ohio as a leader in the emerging technology as reasons for his decisions.

Kasich vows to make Ohio one of the top five states—along with Arizona, California, Florida and Michigan—for developing autonomous vehicle technology. The competition for such projects is intensifying, albeit cautiously in the wake of recent accidents involving self-driving car tests, including a fatality caused by a prototype vehicle operated by Uber in Arizona.

Initial reports indicate that the software in Uber’s autonomous car detected the pedestrian the vehicle struck and killed but wrongly decided no immediate response was necessary. The accident is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. Uber and several other companies suspended tests on public roads of their automated driving systems pending the conclusion of investigations into the crash.

Kasich called the Uber incident “terrible,” but he contends such accidents indicate the need for more testing, not less. If autonomous vehicle technology is done right, it could reduce congestion and greatly reduce injuries and fatalities, adds Jerry Wray, the director of Ohio’s Dept. of Transportation.

In addition to meeting all federal and local safety requirements, the Ohio plan requires companies testing autonomous vehicles to assign an employee or specified contractor to “actively” monitor vehicles throughout a test. The so-called “designated drivers” can be located in the vehicle or at a remote location. In either case, the person much be capable of taking immediate control of the vehicle if necessary.

Companies that want to conduct driverless must notify the state and local communities before conducting a driverless test. The operator is responsible for the safety of the vehicle and must ensure it complies with all traffic laws, according to the order. If a problem is detected, the person must be able to remotely bring the vehicle to a “minimal risk” condition.