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Testing of autonomous vehicles coming soon on Ohio roads

WARREN — It’s all systems go on Ohio’s highways after Gov. John R. Kasich signed an executive order May 9 that will allow testing of autonomous vehicles on the state’s roads.

The cars, according to the order, must meet safety requirements and be capable of obeying traffic regulations.

According to DriveOhio, the state’s center for smart mobility, those wishing to test an autonomous vehicle must first register with the state and make sure the vehicle is safe for operation. An operator must be designated and must inform the state of any collisions.

Erica Hawkins, spokeswoman for DriveOhio, said a semitrailer was successfully tested in 2016 on state Route 33 north of Columbus onto the Ohio Turnpike. At the time, the state maintained that autonomous vehicles were allowed on Ohio roads, but auto companies wanted clarity, Hawkins said. Kasich’s executive order provided that clarity.

Despite the excitement some may feel, one local insurance agent thinks the use of computer-controlled cars is an accident waiting to happen.

“We have enough problems. We don’t need them,” said Violet Miller-Gizdic, owner of Miller Family Insurance in Niles. “I don’t know if any of my companies would cover them.”

Autonomous cars pose unique dangers to pedestrians and other drivers. Last month in Utah, a Tesla on autopilot struck a parked firetruck after accelerating toward it. Two people were injured. In March, a self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Utah. Kasich described the accident as “terrible,” but said risks are part of the testing.

While admitting there will be some liability issues to work out, Tod Northman, an attorney with Cleveland-based Tucker Ellis LLP, said insurance companies will eventually come around and provide coverage once driverless vehicles become widespread or risk going out of business.

Manufacturers, including Tesla and General Motors, have already begun developing and testing autonomous vehicles elsewhere. GM’s Michigan-built Cruise AV, which recently secured a $2.25 billion investment from SoftBank Vision Fund, may be commercialized as soon as next year.

While most car accidents are caused by driver errors, Northman said in 15 or 20 years, liability will shift to the car and the software and hardware operating it.

Determining accident causes will be easier, as some autonomous cars will be equipped with “black boxes” similar to those on aircraft, Northman said.

Guy Coviello, vice president of government affairs for the Regional Chamber and a member of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, said the area is ideal for testing autonomous vehicles.

“This region is already an industry cluster for warehousing and distribution companies and has most of the physical attributes — two-lane, four-lane, roundabouts, flat, hilly, urban, rural, suburban, etc. — as well as virtually every type of weather necessary to test under all conditions,” Coviello said.

Proponents are already taking the autonomous car concept a step further, touting the impact large autonomous trucks could have on the local economy. Kasich’s executive order applies to any size vehicle.

Dan Crouse, sales agent for Routh-Hurlbert Real Estate, said it won’t be long before autonomous trucks are on the road. The movement toward driverless cars could provide a boost to communities located near the turnpike and the real estate near the toll road.

“We have a shortage of truck drivers right now,” said Crouse. “We’re between New York and Chicago. You could literally have a truck from Warren to Chicago and back in a day.”

Crouse said an autonomous truck is no different than flying in an airplane, which has many autonomous controls.

Coviello echoed Crouse’s sentiments.

“Regional Chamber members are faced with a tremendous shortage of drivers,” said Coviello. “We see autonomous vehicles as a long-term, more impactful solution.”

The proximity of the turnpike makes the Mahoning Valley an ideal testing ground, Coviello said.

“The Turnpike is a critical artery for moving people and products. Imagine a world in which everybody, regardless of physical, medical, or any other condition, has the independence of being able to hop in a vehicle and travel when they want,” Coviello said.

Crouse sees the possibility of autonomous trucks as transformative.

“This could be a total game-changer for the turnpike,” Crouse.

ckromer@tribtoday.com

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