INDIANAPOLIS — State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, believes Indiana no longer can sit on the sidelines as auto manufacturers work toward developing and deploying self-driving vehicles, also known as autonomous vehicles, on Hoosier highways.

"We want to encourage the development of autonomous vehicles; we have a lot of manufacturers here," Soliday said. "We want to assure the community ... that we're open for business."

To that end, Soliday has been meeting with automotive industry stakeholders over the past six months to devise potential regulations governing the use of autonomous vehicles in Indiana — since there currently are no enforceable federal standards.

He plans to file legislation when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 3 that someday could make it possible for Hoosiers to sit back and read The Times while their vehicles take them to work, around town or throughout the state.

Safety first

Soliday, who leads the House Roads and Transportation Committee, explained at a recent legislative conference that his primary concern with autonomous vehicles is safety.

He said he's discovered through seminars and study of autonomous vehicles, as well as by riding in them, that there's a significant gap between what developers hope they might be and what engineers currently can make them do.

For example, in work zones, lanes can shift or end with little notice. Or there may be irregularities in the road striping that autonomous vehicles use to drive in conjunction with satellite-based location sensors. Soliday doesn't want construction workers endangered by self-driving cars.

He said that doesn't mean autonomous vehicles will be required to improve road safety, as some of their proponents promise.

But Soliday wants to be sure that autonomous vehicles don't make Indiana's highways more hazardous than they currently are.

"We're not saying to operate on our roads you have to improve by 10 percent or 20 percent," Soliday said. "Just don't compromise what we've got."

While the exact language still is being finalized, Soliday's legislation is expected to require autonomous vehicle makers submit their products for review and approval by a state committee comprised of technical experts before they can be used on Indiana roads.

He said that's necessary to ensure the computerized driver isn't compromising the current level of road safety, as well as serving as a double-check on car companies that generally refuse to share their data on the effectiveness of autonomous vehicle operations.

"Unless we are data-driven then it's very hard for me to buy into this: 'Just trust me, I'm big,'" Soliday said. "I'm not sure the public just trusts corporations because they're big, and we have to have room for the little guy to play on the playing field."

"The safety standards should be the same for both."

Soliday did not disclose who would serve on the technical committee, or what exactly they'll be looking for, but his forthcoming plan is supported by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The Republican chief executive in November listed autonomous vehicle regulation as one of his top priorities for the 2018 legislative session.

Challenges ahead

Soliday acknowledged that autonomous vehicle development is moving quickly. So he expects any law aimed at regulating them will need to be updated every year or so to keep pace with the latest improvements.

At the same time, he's not convinced that manufacturers ever will get to the point where autonomous vehicles operate 100 percent of the time, on every road and in every weather condition, without any human control.

"The vision-casters will say we can do it tomorrow. When you go to the test facilities they say, 'Well, not really.' So, who knows," Soliday said.

He also pointed out that many autonomous features, such as lane-keeping assist, automatic braking and self-driving parallel park already are available in quite a few new car models, and perhaps the cost of going fully autonomous may keep humans behind the wheel — but with a little extra help — for years to come.

Bob McCullouch, program manager at Purdue University's Local Technical Assistance Program, said motorists almost certainly will have to continue driving their vehicles, at least part of the time, since many local roads in Indiana are not striped, signed or otherwise prepared to accommodate the technology used by autonomous vehicles.

He said the 14,000 miles of state-maintained highways across Indiana probably could handle self-driving cars and trucks without too many upgrades.

But he noted there also are 84,000 miles of local roads in the state.

"So a large part of our network will probably not be accessible to these kinds of vehicles unless we make some dramatic changes," McCullouch said. 

State Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis, the top Democrat on the House Roads and Transportation Committee, said just because autonomous vehicles are not yet perfect in every situation, that doesn't mean Indiana should hold off on encouraging their development and use.

"I think this is an exciting, very forward-looking bill," Forestal said.