Maryland proposes I-95 as testing ground for driverless cars

Interstate 95 could become a testing ground for driverless cars in 2018 under a state proposal announced Wedne

Interstate 95 and other major arteries around the Baltimore region could become a testing ground for driverless cars starting in 2018 under a proposal Gov. Larry Hogan's administration announced Wednesday.

The state has applied for a U.S. Department of Transportation program that aims to work out the kinks in "autonomous vehicle" technology, speed its arrival on roadways across the country and help grow companies that are developing it.

In addition to I-95, the state proposal would allow testing on U.S. 1, U.S. 40 and the Intercounty Connector, and at facilities such as the port of Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The state chose the busy I-95 corridor from College Park to Aberdeen because it is well-suited for "real-world testing," Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said.

Federal transportation officials are expected to announce their chosen test areas early next year.

Maryland officials said they want to accommodate and adapt to a range of new vehicle technologies — from assistive autopilot features to driverless cars without steering wheels — and make sure it's safe for human drivers to share the road with them.

"Self-driving vehicles have the potential to transform how we live and work, and while we are open for business and eager to realize the life-saving and economic benefits of this innovative technology, we will always ensure safety comes first," said Christine E. Nizer, the state's motor vehicle administrator and chairwoman of a state work group focused on the issue.

The state's application suggested that driverless technology could be used to move freight to and from the port and to shuttle passengers to and from BWI. It also promoted opportunities to explore how tolling systems like those used on I-95 and the ICC can adapt to autonomous vehicles and how the vehicles can communicate with traffic signal systems on roads like U.S. 1 and U.S. 40.

Maryland has not passed any law legalizing or banning autonomous vehicles on its roadways, but cars are still expected to meet certain standards. While vehicles such as Tesla's Model S — which have an autopilot feature — pass muster under state regulations, others like Google's self-driving cars, which don't have steering wheels, do not, Nizer said.

Policy issues are increasingly cropping up as self-driving cars hit roads around the country.

Ride-sharing company Uber has been testing the technology in San Francisco and Pittsburgh for weeks, though Uber pulled its self-driving cars from California roads Wednesday after state regulators moved to revoke their registrations. Uber vehicles have been spotted in San Francisco running red lights and crossing into bike lanes, according to news reports.

Tesla's Model S has been involved in at least two fatal crashes, one that occurred in May when a Tesla using its autopilot was speeding and struck a tractor-trailer. Google vehicles have also been involved in some crashes, including one in September that involved a driver in another vehicle running a red light and striking a driverless Google SUV.

As more technology companies and automakers explore the technology, state and federal regulators are trying to react, said Tom Jacobs, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"A lot of states are trying to get out in front with legislation," he said. "Some are still trying to catch up."

Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Governors in two states have taken executive action on the issue.

Nizer declined to say whether any legislative proposals are in the works in Maryland.

If the state's proposal is chosen by federal officials, state officials said, it "could lead to future federal funding and economic development opportunities for Maryland."

State officials have been talking with a broad group of institutions, public agencies and private organizations through the work group Rahn assembled last year, and hope that coordination encourages federal officials to approve their application, Nizer said.

They plan to involve institutions such as Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade, where research on autonomous vehicles and related cybersecurity demands is already underway, as well as any private companies exploring the technology.

David Woessner, general manager of the Washington, D.C., region for the Arizona-based company Local Motors, said if Maryland's proposal is chosen, it could highlight the region as a place for entrepreneurs interested in autonomous vehicle technology.

"People will want to tap into that if they know there's a network focused on the development and deployment of this technology," he said.

The company has a sales and demonstration facility at National Harbor, where it shows off plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service, and hopes to open a manufacturing facility in the region, Woessner said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic supports Maryland's bid to become a test site because it could make driverless vehicles safer, spokeswoman Ragina Averella said.

"As research moves forward on driverless vehicles, AAA wants to ensure the safety of motorists receives the greatest priority consideration," she said. "In any research undertaken on real roads, precautions must be taken to ensure the safety of the traveling public as well as those involved in any experimentation."

Federal transportation officials said the test areas it selects should be ready for autonomous vehicles by Jan. 1, 2018.

Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration officials said any such vehicles would be required to undergo testing on private tracks before hitting public roads.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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