The idea of self-driving cars is getting further down the road in Connecticut with the General Assembly considering a task force.
State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, earlier this month introduced Bill No. 260, which would establish a task force to analyze and study how self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, will affect the auto industry and Connecticut overall.
Leone said Connecticut should develop legislative parameters for dealing with autonomous vehicles.
“This seems to be the focus of the future for many vendors,” he said in an interview with Crain's Connecticut. “As a state, it makes sense to get a handle on what it is, what it’s not, and where this stuff is headed. Transportation is a very important thing to all our citizens.”
The measure is of great interest to the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, the Hartford-based group that represents new car dealers.
“CARA would be very interested in participating in any way on such a legislative study committee given the implications of this matter for auto retailing in the state,” said Jim Fleming, the association’s president and a former state senate majority leader.
Fleming said he’s had conversations with various Connecticut dealers about autonomous vehicles although the association has not established a formal internal committee on the matter.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced 10 locations nationwide to serve as "automated vehicle proving grounds," although the closest site to Connecticut is the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland.
While competition to develop autonomous vehicles will likely heat up in coming years, Connecticut is probably not the state that will lead the way, said Jeff Aiosa, president of Carriage House of New London, a Mercedes-Benz dealership.
Totally autonomous vehicles, or Stage 5 models, will likely be introduced in a highly dense, “geo-fenced” urban environment with global positioning systems playing a major role in coordinating movements and the vehicles communicating with each other electronically.
“We’re not urban enough in Connecticut for that environment,” said Aiosa, who has been in the auto business for 36 years.
The levels of driving automation range from zero (no automation) to five (full automation), according to SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Aiosa envisions experiments with fully self-driving cars, or what he calls “pods,” beginning in a large retirement community.
The issue of “co-mingling” autonomous vehicles with traditional cars presents some difficulties, he said. Yet Connecticut’s stretch of Interstate 95 is one place where an experiment could be conducted with one lane of the roadway designated for Stage 5 autonomous vehicles; another for Stage 3 (conditional automation), and the third lane for the standard cars of today.
“I’m not seeing a move toward that, at least not yet,” Aiosa said. “We had HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes for years but those have fallen into disuse. It would have to be something like that with the lanes clearly designated.”
The evolution of autonomous vehicles at Mercedes-Benz dates back to 1999 with the introduction of the radar-assisted Distronic autonomous cruise control system in S-Class and CL Class vehicles, Aiosa said.
By 2013, Mercedes vehicles had reached 70 percent autonomy, he said. The Mercedes cars in Carriage House’s showroom today are classified as Stage 3, which SAE International calls conditional automation. Aiosa said Stage 5 offerings are “the holy grail” of vehicle autonomy.
Other luxury car dealers also offer Stage 3 cars.
The technology to create Stage 5 cars is in existence, Aiosa said. It’s about three years from being present in vehicles that could be purchased in Mercedes showrooms, he said.
“On the tech side, we’re there,” Aiosa said.
But a situation in which a person could get in a car and do absolutely nothing other than sitting is probably 15 to 20 years away, he said.
“It’s a very dynamic time in our industry,” Aiosa said. “In the next five years there will be more change than in the past 15 years. This move toward autonomy is a major influence on both Mercedes and the industry overall.”
Aiosa expects Germany-based Mercedes-Benz to be among the industry leaders in autonomous vehicles. Mercedes dealerships in Connecticut include locations in Danbury, Fairfield, Greenwich, Hartford and North Haven.
“Not to be snobbish but it’s the luxury players that will have it first,” the Carriage House president said.
Automakers may band together in an alliance to study and work out legal and safety issues, Aiosa said.
“It would done collectively so the industry could show that it is doing all it can to safeguard occupants’ lives,” he said.
Consumers, ultimately, will decide the fate of self-driving cars.
Aiosa pointed to millennials, or those between ages 19 and 35, as the demographic to propel the concept forward amid their changing use of energy and transportation.
There’s a possible convergence between autonomous vehicles and electric cars, Aiosa added. Through the influence of ride-hailing companies, autonomous cars could become an “appreciating asset” that could be loaned to others, earning money for the owner when he or she is not using the vehicle.
Such additional usage would increase business in dealers’ repair and service divisions, Aiosa predicted.