Legislators Give Thumbs Up to Self-Driving Cars

Two public meetings this week produced surprisingly strong support for self-driving vehicles in Wisconsin.

On Tuesday evening Madison’s Capital Times newspaper hosted a forum on self-driving cars. About seventy-five people showed up. When the moderator asked for applause for various points of view the loudest clapping came for the pro-driverless position. Opponents generated only a smattering of applause.

Then on Wednesday the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy held a public hearing with invited guests from academia and from the driverless car industry. In a refreshing departure from the nonstop partisan divide, representatives from both parties voiced their support for the technology. More than one legislator from each party noted their enthusiasm for the prospect of greater safety on the road.

Committee members and interested observers nearly fill the Capitol’s largest hearing room to hear presentations on self-driving vehicles on Wednesday.

The upshot is likely to be legislation to govern self-driving vehicles. A bill along those lines was introduced in 2013 by Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), but it did not pass. Speakers at the hearing indicated that recently passed legislation in Michigan might be the most up to date state law on this topic in the nation. No doubt that will be looked at as a model for what might happen here. Speakers said that the Michigan bill passed with unanimous bipartisan support.

Here are some interesting facts and assertions we gleaned from the two meetings:

• About 40,000 people were killed on American roads last year, a more than 7% increase.

• In Wisconsin there were 588 fatalities, 6% more than the previous year.

• Vehicle crashes cost the nation almost $900 billion a year in deaths, medical expenses, property damage, caring for the injured, lost wages, etc.

• Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans ages 4 to 34.

• In the last two years in Wisconsin 25 people were killed while riding a bike. A Bike Fed analysis indicates that at least 16 of those could have been prevented with a self-driving car.

• The fastest growing cause of crashes is distracted driving, often text messaging and other phone uses.

• Some form of driver error is implicated in about 94% of all crashes.

• Self-driving cars combined with car sharing services could have the effect of removing 90% of cars from the road.

• Every lane mile of freeway can now move about 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles an hour. Self-driving technology will make traffic flow more efficient, making every lane mile more productive. Legislators should be especially interested in that as they struggle to come up with ways to fill a gap in the transportation budget.

There was an interesting discussion at the end of the Cap Times forum about when we could expect this technology to really take hold. Some participants felt it would be years if not decades. My own view is that it could happen much faster.

For one thing, self-driving on-demand vehicle services promise to be much less expensive than owning a car, which runs about $9,000 a year on average. For another thing insurance companies are likely to start charging a lot more to insure conventional vehicles as automated ones will rarely be responsible for a crash.

Then there are the generational issues. Almost one out of four 19-year olds in America does not have a driver’s license compared to only eight percent without a license in the 1970’s. Driving is not the right of passage it once was and young people embrace technology with ease and enthusiasm.

On the other end of the spectrum, baby boomers may want to go self-driving to maintain their independence as they start to confront the limits of age.

No doubt this won’t happen over night, but the sooner the better so that we can start saving some of those 40,000 lives cut unnecessarily short every year.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

2 thoughts on “Legislators Give Thumbs Up to Self-Driving Cars

  1. I look forward to having these vehicles on the road. Even just a few of them interspersed with the regular cars will help to moderate things. Plus, maybe police will be better able to issue tickets to the remaining cars that are driven by humans for speeding…

  2. I think the biggest challenge will be handling the emotional response people have. If a driver kills someone with a car, no one cares. People expect drivers to kill people, so it does not bother them. If you hear chatter about driverless cars, you can tell people get very angry – even in advance and hypothetically – if the driverless car kills someone.

    No one is at all concerned that Wisconsin auto fatalities are on the rise. If fatalities were to decrease as a result of driverless cars, people would be very upset- more upset than they are now. Put another way, drivers would rather kill 500 Wisconsinites per year on their own than have only 10 people killed by driverless cars. The same people who apathetically shrug off a friend or family member being seriously hurt or killed by a driver will suddenly be getting outraged by a driverless car that kills a complete stranger.

    This irrational disconnect will be a huge challenge. People think they are safe in their manned cars, even though they are not. They think driverless cars are dangerous, even if they are not. I would guess those attending this meeting were essentially self-selected and were being rational. I would not expect that from the driving public.

    But I am all for it. Since 94% percent of fatalities are caused by operator error, the sooner we get rid of operators the better. We will be able to ride our bikes with more peace of mind.

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