By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – Technology often marches ahead of the ability of government regulators to keep up. A prime example is the internet, which surged ahead in its formative days in part because there was an absence of red tape to hold back its pioneers.

Autonomous vehicles are another example. Researchers and industry are racing to develop, test and eventually market self-driving vehicles, from cars to trucks to small sidewalk delivery robots. The trick for government is how to monitor public safety without forcing unnecessary detours to innovation.

The release of the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy in late 2016 signaled Washington will keep a “hands-off” attitude, at least for now, when it comes to telling automakers and others how to proceed with the development of autonomous vehicles.

However, some state governments have taken the federal approach as an invitation to regulate a burgeoning young industry and to “fence out” innovation. The result could lead to contradictory state laws that lack national cohesiveness and which impede interstate commerce.

Fortunately, those “regulate-first, ask-questions-later” states may not include Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker has signed an executive order that removes roadblocks to testing autonomous vehicle technologies in Wisconsin and which builds upon the UW-Madison College of Engineering’s recent designation by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 national proving grounds.

The Governor’s Steering Committee on Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Testing and Deployment will advise Walker on how best to advance the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles in Wisconsin. It will include a mix of industry, technology, regulatory and academic members, and build upon the selection of the UW’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory as a test bed.

“The removal of barriers to the testing and deployment of automated and connected vehicle technology in Wisconsin may produce significant social, economic, environmental, and innovative benefits including enhancing mobility, creating jobs, and improving transportation efficiency,” reads Executive Order 245, signed by Walker in mid-May.

Walker’s move is attracting national attention. The bipartisan Council of State Governments will convene a diverse group of policymakers next month in Detroit to talk about trends in state laws related to self-driving vehicles, and Wisconsin’s approach will be cited.

The TOPS lab at UW-Madison will partner with MGA Research, a New York-based company, to make use of 400 acres of existing roadways and crash-testing facilities in Burlington, Wis., as well as the Road America track between Plymouth and Elkhart Lake. Wisconsin’s testing mix will also include portions of the Epic headquarters campus in Verona and the UW-Madison campus itself.

Self-driving 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.

Autonomous vehicles won’t be commonplace for years, but the opportunity for Wisconsin to lead is now:

  • Despite the loss of major auto assembly plants, the state is home to automotive suppliers and more specialized manufacturers, such as Harley-Davidson, Johnson Controls, Rockwell Automation, ABB, Oshkosh Corp. and Pierce Manufacturing.
  • It’s a state with weather extremes that will provide real-world testing conditions.
  • The insurance industry in Wisconsin is already closely monitoring and even investing in the future of connected or 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 potential for self-driving vehicles has been hailed by advocates for the elderly and disabled, by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and by many highway safety groups. Legislators such as Reps Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, and Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, and Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, have spoken out on the potential for such vehicles.

The president of Global Automakers, an industry trade group, wrote May 24 that Wisconsin has joined Ohio, Virginia, and Arizona “on the road best traveled” by striving to be a state “where innovation is possible and life-saving technology can move forward.”

Perhaps the first order of business for Wisconsin’s autonomous vehicle steering committee is to share the wheel and let innovation drive itself.