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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Connecticut should keep the pedal to the metal

    With Apple just announcing that it’s killing its electric car project, which included autonomous driving features, and other similar projects seemingly getting scrapped on a weekly basis, one might think the autonomous and electric vehicle space is destined for failure. But not so.

    The future is indeed electric. We just need to accelerate at an appropriate speed while the technology and infrastructure can continue to be developed and allow for the public to improve its understanding about the benefits versus succumbing to media hype and eschewing the inevitable progression towards a cleaner and safer alternative mode of transportation.

    Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), which run on high capacity, renewable batteries used in electric vehicles, have the ability to contribute to improved safety on the roads, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) contributing to a cleaner environment, and more efficient supply chains around the world.

    With 100,000 vehicular crashes largely due to human error each year in our state, no meaningful progress in reducing Connecticut’s GHG emissions numbers over the last 30 years and a robust manufacturing industry, Connecticut is poised to directly benefit from this technology if we continue to embrace and support it.

    In addition, Connecticut currently holds a leadership position in advancing this field and should continue to drive this technology forward. For instance, UConn has become a leader in autonomous vehicle research, technology and safety and is implementing a state-of-the-art testing track on its campus in the near future. Consumer Reports chose Colchester to house the world's largest independent automobile testing center and regularly tests new safety features for autonomous vehicles. State legislation established an AV pilot program pre-pandemic and continues to evolve its strategic plans for supporting the continued development of connected and automated vehicles.

    Safety is still the priority. Testing new autonomous technologies in closed areas away from the public will prevent unnecessary accidents with pedestrians or other vehicles and help mitigate the public relations nightmares that ensue and set back the public’s confidence in this technology. For the record, cars have been successfully implementing features at varying levels of autonomous driving for many years, i.e., automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, adaptive cruise control.

    Public adoption is essential. AAA releases annually a consumer interest survey on autonomous systems and there is a continued and increasing fear of self-driving technologies over the past couple of years. News like Apple’s decision as well as fear mongering (especially during an election year) about real concerns, like range anxiety, recyclability of batteries, transportation equity and infrastructure are hurdles but not insurmountable with stronger public education campaigns at the community level and continued collaboration between academia, industry and government entities. Developing better, more affordable products will also help drive adoption.

    Promoting positive strides more consistently would help counter periodic negative stories and keep our sights on moving forward versus stalling out. In fact, Connecticut is already making strong inroads in building the infrastructure to support electric vehicles. In January, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) was awarded $14 million in federal grant money to build electric vehicle infrastructure across the state, including in Groton. Also, the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program (NEVI), which is part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enacted in 2021 and deploying direct current fast electric vehicle chargers along our highways, has allocated $52 million for our state of Connecticut.

    Electric and autonomous vehicles are the future. Connecticut stands to benefit from embracing this technology and all it has to offer as well as maintaining its leadership position. We just need to continue finding solutions to the roadblocks through collaboration with all key stakeholders on both sides of the aisle and bring the public along for the ride. We’ll get there eventually if we keep our eyes on the road and stop rubbernecking.

    Maggie Tobin, of Stonington, and Mona Shahbazi are Master of Business Administration students at the University of Rhode Island.

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