By Tom Still

Wisconsin has always been in the driver’s seat when it comes to innovation around machines that move on roads, waterways and farm fields.

Wisconsin “firsts” include the steam-powered automobile (1871), the automobile race (1878), the motorcycle (1880s), the gasoline-powered automobile (1889), the steel automobile frame (1899); the gasoline-powered tractor (1901); the four-wheel drive automobile (1908); a commercially successful outboard gasoline engine for boats (1910); the speedometer (1912) and robotic welding for vehicle frames (1963).

Today, Wisconsin is positioned to take a lead in research, development and testing of self-driving vehicles. It’s an opportunity that will only get bigger for states with the right expertise, business mix and policy leadership.

Self-driving or autonomous vehicles have been under development for years. They’re essentially “smart” vehicles that sense the environment around them and navigate without human input through use of radar, laser technology (Lidar), global positioning systems and other computer visioning. Benefits include lower accident and injury rates, greater energy efficiency, reduced infrastructure investment and improved mobility for people who otherwise can’t – or shouldn’t – drive.

From buses to taxicabs, and from trucks to passenger vehicles, virtually every manufacturer is developing self-driving vehicles knowing it’s only a matter of time before they become commonplace. In fact, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last fall he expects to see autonomous vehicles rolling along everywhere in the world within 10 years.

The opportunity for Wisconsin exists through several avenues:

  • The tradition of vehicle innovation in Wisconsin is more than history. Despite the loss of major auto assembly plants, the state is home to a number of automotive suppliers and more specialized manufacturers, such as Harley-Davidson, Johnson Controls, Oshkosh Corp. and Pierce Manufacturing.
  • The insurance industry in Wisconsin, with American Family Insurance being a notable example, is already closely monitoring and even investing in the future of connected and autonomous  vehicles.
  • Wisconsin is a state heavily engaged in trucking, both to move goods and as a home for major carriers. With the trucking industry scrambling to find enough drivers, it may make the move to autonomous vehicles sooner than most. The reasons involve interstate trucking routes and the payback for economic investment.
  • Wisconsin researchers already have expertise and skin the game. A recent memo from the UW-Madison Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering noted that autonomous vehicles “have significant potential to improve the quality of life and meet the goals of shared prosperity.” Marquette and UW-Milwaukee have also engaged in research. As the UW-Madison memo noted, state legislation opening the door to autonomous vehicle testing “could bring significant new research opportunities… and new businesses, including startups and tech companies, to Wisconsin.”

General Motors, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla are among automakers investing in autonomous vehicles, along with tech companies such as Google, Lyft and Uber. Collectively, they are looking for more places to test their products.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles: Nevada, California, Florida, Michigan, North Dakota and Tennessee. Self-driving cars are already a common sight in California, where 11 companies have permits to test such vehicles on the roads. Generally speaking, existing state laws allow self-driving cars with a human operator who can engage of disengage autonomous operation. Wisconsin could stand out if it passed legislation allowing pilot studies of fully autonomous vehicles, which don’t require human backups.

A bipartisan bill allowing some use of self-driving cars introduced two years ago in the Wisconsin Legislature didn’t advance, but the time may be right for legislation that could attract investment, jobs and the attention of the automotive world.

A century or more ago, there were probably plenty of people in Wisconsin who cringed at the thought of all those horseless carriages, motorized bicycles and boats buzzing about. And yet, it was precisely that kind of innovation that built part of Wisconsin’s modern economy – and which can be repeated with an aggressive welcome to autonomous vehicles.