First driverless vehicle bill in state gets Senate hearing
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.