First driver­less ve­hi­cle bill in state gets Se­nate hear­ing

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Tamara Chuang

Five months after a self-driv­ing trac­tor-trailer trav­eled south from Fort Collins on In­ter­state 25 to de­liver Bud­weiser beer to Colorado Springs, state law­mak­ers took their first step Thurs­day to con­trol how fu­ture au­tonomous ve­hi­cles will roll out in Colorado.

The Se­nate Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee heard tes­ti­mony from peo­ple for and against Se­nate Bill 17-213. Se­nate spon­sors Owen Hill and Do­minick Moreno de­scribe the bill as cre­at­ing a frame­work that al­lows au­tonomous ve­hi­cles on Colorado roads as long as the ve­hi­cles obey state and fed­eral laws. If they don’t, op­er­a­tors must co­or­di­nate tests with the Colorado Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion and State Pa­trol. Cur­rently, there are no state laws reg­u­lat­ing driver­less ve­hi­cles.

“We’re putting in a frame­work where we rec­og­nize there’s a pe­riod in this de­vel­op­ment where we need to test some things and try new things, and we’re say­ing you can come do that here,” Hill said. “Colorado is open for busi­ness on that.”

The push for driver­less ve­hi­cles is sup­ported by the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, which has an­nounced ex­ten­sive plans called RoadX to use tech­nol­ogy to solve growth, con­ges­tion and an in­creas­ing num­ber of crashes. Driver­less cars — which use sen­sors, cam­eras, GPS and lasers to drive on their own — are be­ing tested on the roads in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona and Michi­gan. Hill said that as of this week, ev­ery state has in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to reg­u­late au­tonomous ve­hi­cles.

Many who spoke against the bill say it should specif­i­cally ad­dress safety con­cerns.

Charles Perko of Pue­blo, who works at EVRAZ Rocky Moun­tain Steel, said he has seen man­u­fac­tur­ing ac­ci­dents that in­volved highly au­to­mated equip­ment. One in­ci­dent ended the ca­reer of a col­league.

“We are sim­ply not ready for the deadly ef­fects of this new and un­proven tech­nol­ogy,” he said.

Kier­sten Forseth, with the Colorado AFL-CIO and rep­re­sent­ing com­mer­cial driv­ers, said she was con­cerned the law doesn’t in­clude a fail-safe mech­a­nism.

“If the tech­nol­ogy starts to fail, there is no­body be­hind the (wheel) in or­der to hit the stop but­ton,” she said. She added: “Au­to­mated sys­tems in all trans­porta­tion sec­tors can be help­ful and can pro­vide ex­tra safety for our driv­ers, so it’s not that we’re 100 per­cent op­posed to any sort of au­to­ma­tion. But in this case, it is nec­es­sary that we have a fail-safe mech­a­nism like a driver be­hind the wheel, buck­led in, to en­sure that if some­thing goes wrong (they) can stop the ve­hi­cle.”

Many also ac­knowl­edged ben­e­fits of driver­less ve­hi­cles, which can travel in nar­row lanes at steady speeds and alert each other of traf­fic slow­downs. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Ad­vo­cacy Den­ver said the tech­nol­ogy would greatly im­prove op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. A man from Ac­cel­er­ate Colorado said the state needs to be a pi­o­neer in the tech­nol­ogy. An eastern plains farmer showed up to ex­press his ap­proval.

“I first used au­topi­lot in a trac­tor in 1998 and we never looked back,” said Nathan Weath­ers, a farmer from Yuma rep­re­sent­ing the Colorado Farm Bu­reau. “(Au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy) has re­duced ac­ci­dents late at night be­cause of driver fa­tigue. It’s re­ally helped us in­crease our busi­ness and ef­fi­ciency.”

Hal Lenox, who at­tended on be­half of Gen­eral Mo­tors, pointed to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion statis­tic that 94 per­cent of traf­fic ac­ci­dents in the U.S. in 2015 were the re­sult of hu­man er­ror. GM ad­vo­cates for state reg­u­la­tions.

“With­out changes to state law, GM does not be­lieve it is pos­si­ble to make progress in self-driv­ing cars in Colorado. The cur­rent laws as we read them and an­a­lyze them clearly con­tem­plate a hu­man driver, so (with­out this new law) we could not get to the point of see­ing this tech­nol­ogy all the way through,” Lenox said.

An amend­ment to re­quire a hu­man backup driver in the ve­hi­cles, pro­posed by com­mit­tee mem­ber Sen. Nancy Todd, was re­jected.

The com­mit­tee voted against the amend­ment after Hill spoke against adding re­stric­tions. “When we start putting too many specifics in these bills, in these reg­u­la­tions, we risk reg­u­lat­ing an in­dus­try out of ex­is­tence be­fore it has a chance to prove it­self,” he said. “That’s why we fo­cused in our bill that you have to co­or­di­nate with CDOT and State Pa­trol if you can’t show that you are safe and can fol­low the rules of the road.”

The com­mit­tee ap­proved SB 213 on a 5-0 vote. It now moves to the Se­nate for de­bate.

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