By Tom Still
MADISON – A century or more ago, there were 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 a signature part of Wisconsin’s modern economy – and which can be repeated today with an aggressive welcome to autonomous vehicles.
An Assembly committee will hold an informational hearing next week on the state of self-driving vehicle testing in Wisconsin, which got a jumpstart earlier this year when the UW-Madison College of Engineering was picked by the federal Department of Transportation as one of 10 institutions nationwide that will test self-driving cars.
The selection of the university’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory as a testing site is significant, but Wisconsin could still fall out of the fast lane unless it quickly joins other states in clearing the way for the advent of autonomous vehicles through legislation or executive orders.
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 farm equipment, and from trucks to passenger cars, virtually every manufacturer is developing self-driving vehicles knowing it’s only a matter of time before they become commonplace.
As the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy will be told Wednesday, the opportunity for Wisconsin exists through several avenues:
- The tradition of vehicle innovation in Wisconsin is more than its rich history, which dates to the first steam-powered automobile in 1871. 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, Rockwell Automation, ABB, 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 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 reasons involve interstate trucking routes and the payback for economic investment.
- Wisconsin researchers already have expertise and skin in the game. The UW-Madison Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, home to the traffic safety lab, has noted that autonomous vehicles “have significant potential to improve the quality of life and meet the goals of shared prosperity.” Those same researchers said state laws opening the door to autonomous vehicle testing “could bring significant new research opportunities… and new businesses, including startups and tech companies, to Wisconsin.”
- The potential for such vehicles has been hailed by advocates for the elderly and disabled, by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and by many highway safety groups. However, some observers believe they will reduce demand for public transit. Others note obvious cybersecurity challenges.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states — California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia – as well as Washington, D.C., have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles. Governors in Arizona and Massachusetts have issued executive orders related to self-driving vehicles.
The release of the new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy in late September makes it clear that Washington will keep a “hands-off” attitude when it comes to telling automakers and others how to proceed with the development of autonomous vehicles.
That’s good news in this sense: Industry and technology will continue to take the lead in developing these vehicles and related systems, not the federal bureaucracy.
It also means state governments can expect latitude to promote innovation around such vehicles and supporting infrastructure while ensuring driver and public safety. First, however, change-resistant lawmakers must confront their fear of the unknown.
Legislation was introduced in Wisconsin two years ago but stalled. With the state-by-state race to gain a competitive edge well underway, Wisconsin cannot afford to forfeit the driver’s seat again.