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Senators consider how to manage driverless vehicles

December 19, 2018

Are they the liberating key to increased mobility, greater access to jobs, health care and education, and enhanced highway safety?

Or a threat to jobs, public safety and even the mayhem that could result from a cyberattack?

Driverless vehicles, more formally described as autonomous vehicles, were subjected to close examination Monday by the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee as it considered how to implement legislation that has authorized autonomous vehicles to operate on Nebraska’s roadways.

The committee already has identified 26 issues that need to be examined.

The authorizing legislation, introduced by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, was originally designed to give Lincoln authority to operate four driverless downtown shuttles as part of an experimental pilot project.

But it was subsequently broadened on the floor of the Legislature to authorize driverless vehicles to operate on roads statewide and was enacted earlier this year.

Now, Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said, the Legislature needs to determine “where the guard rails are to allow technology to move ahead in a safe manner.”

Leighton Yates, senior manager of state affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, described Nebraska as “the champion on this issue,” suggesting that the state now stands “at the forefront of new technology.”

The next step is to “allow the full spectrum of technology to emerge,” he said.

That technology will “expand mobility options” while saving lives and providing environmental benefits, Yates said.

What is emerging is “an evolution, not a revolution,” he said, with a need to put safety first.

Ken Ostronic, representing Teamsters Local 554 in Omaha, said continued automation “threatens our core industries” and, in this case, is a danger to public safety.

“We need a human driver as a backstop to take over” when unforeseen circumstances such as road damage and distracted or impaired drivers present an unexpected danger, he said.

This legislation “treats Nebraskans as guinea pigs,” Ostronic said, “and the state as a petri dish.”

The committee will submit its recommendations for consideration by the 2019 Legislature, which convenes next month.

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