Oregon DOT’s AV Task Force rolls on — without a biking or walking rep at the table

Image from cover of ODOT’s Autonomous Vehicles 101 presentation.

— Caleb Diehl is a staff writer at Oregon Business Magazine. This is his first story for BikePortland.

Despite recent news of an autonomous vehicle crash in Tempe, Arizona, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s task force on autonomous vehicles is driving forward.

The group will hold its first meeting on April 18. Among the 27 members appointed by ODOT Director Matthew Garrett you’ll find members of the trucking, taxicab and automotive industries.

You won’t, however, find anyone from an organization that advocates for biking and walking.

ODOT spokesperson Sarah Kelber said she couldn’t comment on the makeup of the task force, which is outlined in HB 4063, the bill that created it. The language of the legislation doesn’t leave much wiggle room for choosing appointees. But it does mandate that one member come from a nonprofit, which could have opened the door for an advocate of vulnerable road users. The Street Trust’s Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky said his organization was notified too late in the process to take part.

The current list of task force members.

The omission is particularly striking given the recent developments in autonomous vehicle testing. Uber put the brakes on AV testing after March 18, when one of its self-driving cars struck and killed a 49-year-old woman crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona. That marked the first known fatality of someone walking due to an autonomous vehicle. After the incident, Uber suspended testing in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

“I can’t imagine it would not come up in conversation. It will continue to come up as we keep safety at the center of what we’re doing.”
— Sarah Kelber, ODOT, referring to the fatal Uber crash

While some states and cities have scaled back, ODOT remains open to testing. The agency says on its website that it’s, “Looking to work with any company that has interest in bringing automated vehicles to Oregon.”

Kelber says the Tempe collision will affect the task force discussions though. “I can’t imagine it would not come up in conversation,” she says. “It will continue to come up as we keep safety at the center of what we’re doing.”

Without an advocate for biking or walking in the room, however, that discussion could trend toward statements like that made by Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir, who essentially blamed the victim for her own death by saying she, “came from the shadows right into the roadway.” Video released by Uber showed she was actually three-quarters of the way across the street when the car hit her. The human backup driver who could have slammed the brakes was looking at their lap.

While safety is at the top of the list, other talking points for the ODOT task force include: licensing and registration, insurance and liability, law enforcement and crash reporting, and cybersecurity.

Autonomous vehicles were a key focus of the national Urbanism Next Conference that took place in Portland in early March. Planners and politicians were split on whether widespread adoption of AVs would constitute a heaven or hell scenario. They could alleviate problems for elderly and handicapped people, make traffic flow more efficient, and eliminate the 94 percent of crashes caused by human error.

Or they could provide a big incentive to drive instead of taking other transportation modes, contributing to congestion, sprawl and the myriad other negative externalities of driving.

Daimler has already started testing semi-autonomous trucks on its Eastern Oregon test track, although those vehicles still need a driver behind the wheel.

Four members of the task force still need to be nominated. The President of the Senate will choose a Democrat and a Republican from the Senate, and the Speaker of the House will do the same for the house.

The task force will set out procedural guidelines in the first meeting including how often it will meet. The meetings will be open to the public, and the public can submit written or verbal comment. “Everybody is welcome,” Kelber says, “especially bike and pedestrian related folks to weigh in on what is going on.”

The first meeting, on April 18, will be at 9 a.m. in Room 101 at the Chemeketa Center for Business and Industry (CCBI) in Salem. The task force must present a report to the legislature by September 2018. Learn more on ODOT’s website.

(In related news: On March 28th, the Portland Bureau of Transportation officially authorized an Administrative Rule (TRN-14.34) that establishes a permit system for commercial AVs to operate in Portland.)

— Caleb Diehl

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