Our Opinion: State should be prepared for self-driving cars

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The once-incomprehensible concept of driverless cars is rapidly approaching reality. Massachusetts could wait indefinitely for Washington, D.C. to pass regulations governing them or it could get ahead of the game. The latter is a far better idea.

State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and House colleague Jason Lewis, both Democrats, are co-sponsoring legislation regulating such vehicles (Eagle, April 17.) They would be required to be zero-emission, be limited in how far they can go without a passenger present, and set up to collect data about mileage, among other provisions. At this point only Michigan has passed a state law governing driverless cars.

Companies like Ford, which in January announced plans to build plants in Michigan and Illinois that will in part be devoted to the production of electric and self-driving vehicles, Renault and Nissan are at the forefront of the movement to build self-driving cars powered by electricity. A state requirement that the cars be zero-emission would further encourage car companies to build driverless cars that don't contribute to fossil fuel emissions and climate change. The restrictions on operating without a passenger present are designed to curb the potential problem of "zombie cars" operated by Uber or taxi companies that could patrol the streets waiting for customers, further clogging the state's crowded highways. The data collected would help fine-tune regulations.

A lobbyist for the Washington-based Global Automakers, which supports federal laws governing self-driving cars, complained at a recent hearing of the Joint Committee on Transportation in Boston that Massachusetts is creating a patchwork of inconsistent standards and burdensome regulations. As this process has barely begun in Boston it is hugely premature to complain about standards and regulations that are still on the drawing board. There is little momentum in Washington for addressing self-driving car regulations, and given the partisan paralysis in Washington, it would be irresponsible of Massachusetts and other states to not move forward on their own with rules on driver-less vehicles.

A growing movement to electric cars would reduce gasoline consumption — a positive — but as Representative Farley-Bouvier observed in The Eagle this would also reduce revenue collected through the gasoline tax, which is used to fund highway repair and construction projects. After years of stagnation, the gasoline tax was increased to 24 cents a gallon in 2013, but a worthy provision to tie future increases in the tax to the inflation rate was overturned at the ballot in 2014. Current tax revenue is inadequate to the state's transportation funding needs and will become more so should tax revenue decline. A state fee on electric cars based on the mileage they travel will be necessary to compensate for lost gasoline tax revenue.

Massachusetts shouldn't wait for the inevitable, or for the federal government, when it comes to self-driving cars. Governor Baker and the Senate will weigh in with their own ideas on the issue, but passage of the Farley-Bouvier-Lewis legislation in the House will start driving this process forward.












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