BARRE — Vermont transportation officials are hoping automated vehicle companies will see the state as a good place to test self-driving cars, given the variety of road conditions and other factors the state has going for it.
On Monday, the Agency of Transportation hosted the “Vermont AV-Xchange Forum,” featuring state transportation officials, leaders in the automated vehicle industry, and the leaders of several municipalities and planning organizations.
In 2019, lawmakers passed a law that would allow automated vehicles to be tested on state roads. The law directed the AOT to develop rules for said testing that would keep said testing safe, as well as promote it by encouraging AV companies and local governments to work together.
“The exchange is going to help shape the path for AV testing here in Vermont, and deployment, and really we’re just trying to get Vermont on the AV testing map,” said Joe Segale, director of policy planning and research at AOT.
Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn said promoting AVs in the state will help the economy.
“Transportation is essential to support a growing economy,” he said. “Testing will help Vermont prepare for AVs, which will be increasingly important to meeting the mobility needs of businesses, employees, and Vermont’s visitors.”
AVs may also help lower transportation costs in both the public and private sectors, he said. They may at some point be able to serve people who can’t otherwise drive.
“AVs need to work everywhere if they’re going to work successfully and deliver potential benefits,” said Flyyn. “Most testing has happened in urban environments with warmer climates. Vermont offers a mix of small cities surrounded by rural countryside, challenging terrain, weather, and roads. If AVs work well in Vermont, they should work anywhere.”
Among those attending the forum was Mike Martin, vice chairman of the Springfield Select Board.
“From a personal standpoint, I’m looking forward to being able to jump in a car and tell it to take me someplace, arriving on longer trips better rested, and safely,” he said. “From the standpoint of benefits to Vermont, what excites me is the opportunity to test these vehicles to get our citizens aware of the opportunity.”
Robert Brown, senior director of public affairs at TuSimple, said forums like these are a good way to get things started for Vermont.
“Anytime when we go to a new city — we started in Tucson and worked out way east, we’re in Dallas now — it starts with conversations and it starts with trust,” said Brown.
Near the end of the forum, Brown said a common concern people have about AVs is their impact on the job market. He said TuSimple has partnered with community colleges to develop some of the courses people would need to work with AVs.
“Not all these jobs of the future require you to go to Carnegie-Mellon or Berkley, there’s plenty of jobs that can be existing truck-driver jobs with a little bit of upscaling, and also community college level certifications and machinist work, and that’s where we’ve partnered with them in developing some of these program,” he said.
Many of the concerns the industry hears are alleviated when people see an AV in action, said Lauren Isaac, director of business initiatives, EasyMile. When the company shows off its driverless shuttle, people get on and are nervous at first because there’s no steering wheel or brakes.
“And they ask a lot of questions and there’s that little moment of fear, and then the vehicles starts moving,” she said. “And I’m not joking, within 20 or 30 seconds they’re looking at their phone, checking Facebook or whatever, and we characterize that as boredom, and that’s exactly what you want in a driverless vehicle. It’s not meant to be a rollercoaster, it’s not meant to be exciting, it’s meant to be a form of mobility.”
Segale said that so far, there have been no applications filed to test AVs on Vermont roadways.
Any company wanting to do so should contact AOT.