A small, self-governing island may hand over its roads to self-driving cars
Is this a sign of progress? Or just a gimmick to stay current.
Phil Gawne, the transportation minister on the Isle of Man, is working 16-hour days on two projects rooted in radically different eras.
First, he’s trying to salvage the island’s horse-drawn carriages that date to 1876. At the same time, Gawne is leading a project to potentially lure companies that make fully self-driving cars, vehicles without steering wheels or pedals.
Such is the life of a bureaucrat on one of the world’s most unusual islands. The self-governing island — nestled between Ireland and Britain — has a population close to 90,000 and a land mass about the size of Chicago. It claims to have the oldest continuous parliament in the world, dating back more than 1,000 years.
Its reliance on tourism dictates keeping the horse carriage in business. Driverless cars probably would draw visitors, too, and the government’s ability to move quickly given its small size could make it an appealing destination for companies developing such vehicles.
Tesla released a software update for their cars that gives auto-steering and summoning capabilities from the car key. The Switch's Todd Frankel talks about being inside a self-driving car. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
“We like to be innovative on the island,” Gawne said. “We like also to be independent. This helps both those areas in terms of our international image and reputation.”
Gawne said the government has had discussions with multiple companies interested in bringing driverless cars to the island. Any needed adjustments to the island’s laws could be finished by early summer, a speedy timeline compared to the pace of larger countries, which at times have drawn criticism from the companies developing autonomous vehicles.
For some, a small island — far from the lumbering bureaucracies and swarming cities of large nations — would be an obvious launching point for the first large-scale public trials of fully autonomous vehicles.
“Things can be tried on an island that may not be practical in a city,” said David Alexander, an analyst at Navigant Research. “On the mainland there will always be someone who wants to go beyond the range of the trial and will then proclaim how useless autonomous cars are.”
He added that small island nations generally can’t afford new transit systems on their own. A big company willing to invest in the local infrastructure would probably find a willing government, Alexander said.
The Isle of Man’s government has set up a group to weigh the merits of the technology and determine what laws need changed and what incentives would attract companies, be it office space or warehouses. The effort, which Gawne describes as “fairly urgent,” will be finalized within a month. Gawne says any new regulations could then be pushed through in two or three months. He anticipates broad support in the government.
“We’re very keen. We can see a lot of potential advantages for the island,” he said. “It also helps in terms of the image of Isle of Man.”
But others caution that launching self-driving cars on a small island would not convince people around the world that the technology is trustworthy. Thilo Koslowski, an autonomous-vehicle analyst at Gartner, expects that once companies are ready to release fully self-driving cars — a step he says isn’t imminent — they’ll want to unleash them first in a bustling mainland city.
“That will be the proof in the pudding, to show these technologies are reliable in a real-world environment where most people would come to see those cars,” Koslowski said.
Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, cautions that locations that want to court driverless cars should move carefully.
“One of the public misconceptions about this field is that a state that passed a law on autonomous driving must be ahead. It must be signaling it’s friendly for this kind of development,” Smith said. “That has not been the case.”
In 2015 Google expanded its tests of self-driving cars to Austin, despite Texas not having passed legislation on autonomous cars.
Smith describes new state laws in the United States dealing with autonomous cars as superficial because many of them don’t address key issues. For example, can cars be built to flout laws like human drivers do, such as speeding and crossing double yellow lines in some situations?
There’s also the lingering question of how to determine an appropriate safety standard for driverless cars, Smith said.
So although the cars may eventually be an option for the Isle of Man, it should probably make sure to keep that horse-drawn carriage service running for now.