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Driverless vehicles on Nebraska roads wheel closer under two bills

Driverless vehicles on Nebraska roads wheel closer under two bills
Courtesy/ Legislature. Sen. Anna Wishart.


LINCOLN–Autonomous vehicles traveling Nebraska’s roads would become a possibility under two bills heard Tuesday by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

If passed, Legislative Bill 989, introduced by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, would open Lincoln roads to a driverless vehicle pilot program initially targeted to operate in the downtown area. And LB 1122, sponsored by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill would authorize research and testing of autonomous vehicles on all Nebraska highways.

Larson’s bill also would establish a 19-member Nebraska Council on Future Transportation representing government, businesses, research and technology leader interests. It would be charged with developing and providing policy and legislation related to driverless vehicles.

“Autonomous vehicles are no longer just an engineer’s vision of the future,” Larson said. “I believe it is in our state’s best interests to proceed with a proactive approach by placing standards and regulations into law.”

He said moving forward with LB 1122, which was crafted after a similar Michigan law, is the safest and most responsible way to respond to driverless vehicle proliferation.

No one testified in support of the bill.

Opponents to LB 1122 cited safety concerns in their testimonies, and one was concerned about jobs.

Keith Gamerl, representing Nebraska Teamsters, said he also opposed the bill because of safety, but is more concerned by the potential impact to the labor market.

“I see this as a job killer; I see this fantastic automation slowly picking off commercial drivers,” he said. “We don’t need a truck driving down the road, by itself, just so a company can probably make a little more money.”

Wishart’s bill, however, drew support from a number of interests, including the City of Lincoln, which would use driverless shuttle vehicles to supplement the StarTran bus system and be considered for future public transit expansion.

“With the presence of a research university and the emergence of the Silicon Prairie, Lincoln is particularly poised for an autonomous vehicle pilot project,” Wishart said.

Because technology is advancing rapidly, she said, many cities and states across the country are investing in and researching driverless vehicle programs, and Nebraska should, too.

But she said safety is always a concern.

“Safety remains one of my top priorities in the deployment of this technology,” Wishart said. “This legislation before you outlines rules and regulations to ensure safety.”

If passed, the LB 989 would establish mandatory safety standards for the shuttles, including designated testing routes, insurance requirements and a 35 mph speed limit.

Lincoln officials testified the city could roll out the program in early 2019 with four shuttles that would carry approximately 10 to 18 people. Early in the program’s life, shuttles could only be summoned using a phone application similar to those used by ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft.

Some supporters expressed the need for state action because the technology is advancing.

“The question is, are we going to be ready for the next generation of transportation technology and the arrival of this emerging industry?” Miki Esposito, Lincoln’s director of public works and utilities, asked.

The bill also received support from Allo Communications and the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce.

Committee members asked questions related to safety of the driverless vehicles, sometimes drawing laughter from other committee members and listeners.

“We all know Lincoln drivers are fairly aggressive; how are you going to program these things to run a yellow light at the last second?” committee chairman Kurt Friesen of Henderson asked jokingly.

Not everyone attending found humor in the bill, and testimony against it originated from various sectors.

Uber Technologies Inc., the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers testified against the LB 989.

“I would encourage you not to rush forward on a bill that may have unintended consequences,” Carla Jacobs, Uber’s head of public policy in Nebraska, said. She said passing LB 989 would signal to industry stakeholders that Nebraska supports Lincoln’s sole partnership with StarTran, rather than encouraging broad support for industry competition.

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