From Monday: Bill would authorize self-driving cars

In case readers missed it, on Monday, I wrote about a bill being sponsored by Rep. Isaac Latterell and Sen. Dan Lederman dealing with a high-tech subject: self-driving cars.

Here’s that story:

Self-driving cars have been the stuff of science fiction — but if some lawmakers get their way, they could soon be heading to South Dakota.

With companies like Google and General Motors developing autonomous vehicles, California, Michigan and other states have passed laws to give the self-driving cars access to the road. Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Sioux Falls, wants South Dakota to join them.

"I’ve seen a lot of different states try to encourage driverless car innovation," said Latterell. "We want to be one of the states that’s leading in technology. I think this is another way we can attract car manufacturers who are trying to make advances in this area to come to South Dakota."

His measure, Senate Bill 139, would allow autonomous cars onto South Dakota highways — but with plenty of restrictions. They’d be allowed only for research and testing purposes, not recreational use. The cars would have to have an operator capable of taking control of the car at any moment, if the sensors or computerized guidance systems failed. And the company would have to post a $5 million bond in case anything went wrong.

"There’s a real tension between fostering innovation… and on the other hand protecting public safety," said Bryant Walker Smith, who teaches and studies the legal aspects of automation at Stanford University. "Thirty thousand people die on U.S. roads every year, largely through human error, but you can imagine the consequences of an errant robot, both in terms of lives and the technologies involved."

Latterell and other enthusiasts, such as Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, believe people will grow more comfortable with the idea of a car driving itself as they get more familiar.

"Initially, there are going to be some knee-jerk reactions against the bill, because to think of a car driving itself seems so foreign," said Lederman. "It is a very different idea. But industries have put hundreds of thousands of miles on autonomous cars without any accidents in other states like California."

The self-driving car technology is in a curious state. Commercially available cars can already monitor and control, to varying degrees, a car’s speed and direction. But the dream of a car that can function as a chauffeur, going from one place to another while its owner naps in the back, isn’t here yet.

"The vision of a fully self-driving car has been 20 years away ever since the 1930s," said Smith. "Now the good news is that it’s coming in 10 years."

Though fully automated cars are largely the province of major corporations, some universities and smaller companies are also working on the subject — even here in South Dakota.

"We don’t build automobiles. Our research is to apply autonomy to any vehicle," said Jeff McGough, director of the computational sciences and robotics program at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.

McGough said students and professors are currently working on building robotic vehicles off-roads, partly because of legal issues with taking autonomous cars onto public roads. Instead, they drive their vehicles on private land. But he said he knows students who would love to retrofit cars with self-driving capabilities if it were legal.

"I don’t know of any private land that has, say, interstate," McGough said. "Having the laws in place where we could do research, that would be great."

But McGough said Latterell’s bill might not help student researchers. The requirement for a $5 million bond, in particular, would probably be too great a barrier for a group of students to overcome.

Latterell and Lederman said they haven’t had any conversations with autonomous car manufacturers, but hope they’ll be intrigued if South Dakota joins Nevada, California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, D.C. in passing laws governing self-driving cars.

But different states have taken different approaches to autonomous vehicles, and some meet with more support from the car makers than others.

Lederman and Latterell “certainly will hear from some of the industry participants, but it won’t necessarily be an enthusiastic embrace of the language,” said Smith.

In some states, developers of self-driving vehicles have actually opposed legislation to give them access to the roads with conditions. That’s in part because some of the companies don’t think they need the laws.

"It’s probably already legal for an auto manufacturer to take one of their vehicles, duly licensed in South Dakota… and under the careful supervision of a test driver, operate it on a public road," Smith said.

But “probably legal” doesn’t provide the certainty companies are looking for, so they have welcomed legislation specifically legalizing it — except where lawmakers have proposed too many restrictions.

"Some people might view this as a bill that expands the legality of the activity," Smith said of Latterell’s bill. "It provides certainty, but it may in fact contract the legality of the activity."

A representative of Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Latterell and others noted that whatever shortcomings self-driving cars have, so do human drivers, who cause plenty of accidents by getting distracted or not paying enough attention.

"The autonomous vehicles never stop paying attention to everything," Latterell said.

Smith echoed that concern.

"People should be much more worried about human drivers than they actually are," he said.

But whatever effect South Dakota’s law has, it will likely get people thinking seriously about a technology that could be arriving on the market very soon.

"Starting the discussion is good for the state," Latterell said.

Senate Bill 139 has been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

New tool: Map locations of bill sponsors

Some bills in South Dakota divide the Legislature along ideological lines. Others are more a matter of loyalty to a lawmaker’s respective caucus. And some are geographic, pitting one region of the state against another.

Here’s a tool to help visualize the last category.

Just pick the bill type (House Bill, Senate Bill, Resolution or Commemoration), then pick the bill number from the second menu. The map will update to show the official home residences of each sponsor of that legislation.

Check it out here.

Here’s a few examples.

HJR1001 is a constitutional amendment to expand gambling at Deadwood casinos. Revenue from those casinos helps the whole state, but the bill is particularly aimed at helping one particular town. Here’s the map of HJR1001’s sponsors:

There’s some scattered around the state, but a big cluster in the Black Hills — all three representatives of Deadwood, and a bunch from Rapid City, too.

HB1191 is aimed at helping West River ranchers who were devastated by last October’s blizzard. Here’s where its sponsors live:

Four rural West River lawmakers, several from Rapid City, three rural East River lawmakers, plus one from Aberdeen and two from around Sioux Falls. 

SB106 is a bill dealing with transferring land from one school district to another. The driving force behind the bill comes from the small districts surrounding Sioux Falls; here’s a zoomed-in look at where its sponsors come from in the southeastern corner of the state:

One in Sioux Falls. Five from the suburbs.

Play around with the tool yourself. I’ll update it later in the week to add newly filed bills.

S.D. government web site is down (UPDATE: Not any more)

As of around 4:45 p.m. this afternoon, South Dakota’s government web sites are down. That include sd.gov, constitutional officer web sites like sdsos.gov, and even the Legislature’s web site (since unlike many states, South Dakota’s Legislature hosts its web site on executive branch servers).

The outage comes on the eve of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s annual budget address to the Legislature.

UPDATE: By 5:05 p.m., the sites were back on line.

Tags: technology

Those Rounds websites

UPDATE: This morning, as I predicted below, the roundsforsenate.com website went live.

Among the first public tipoffs that Mike Rounds was considering a Senate run was when aide Rob Sjonsberg registered two Internet domain names, roundsforsenate.com and roundsforsouthdakota.com.

With Rounds expected to announce a Senate candidacy tomorrow, I checked back on those websites to see if there was anything there.

There’s no actual websites there. But there is a filler page from a Parallels website manager software. I can’t remember for certain if that was there before, but I seem to remember a default GoDaddy placeholder page. The Parallels filler suggests someone has been using Parallels Plesk Panel to work on the website.

Roundsforsouthdakota.com now redirects to roundsforsenate.com. I don’t recall this being the case; it used to have a standalone placeholder page, I think.

Google turns up some interesting results inside a /test directory. Visiting roundsforsenate.com/test gives a “forbidden” error, while visiting roundsforsenate.com/tests, or a string of random gibberish, turns up a “not found” error.

So someone has clearly been working on these websites.

I ran a utility on the domain for all the robot-readable pages inside the website. There are a handful, all in the /test directory. You can read that here.

Bottom line: Either I am incompetent at memory/understanding the Internet (very possible!) or someone has been preparing a website at roundsforsenate.com to go live tomorrow.

How to search this site

A bit of tech support here. Most of you, like me, have probably had difficulties with the fact that the search functions on argusleader.com and this blog seem non-functional.

To help that, a while ago I added some of my most common topics to the sidebar so you can click on them and see all the posts about them.

But here’s another workaround you can use here, on argusleader.com, or on any site on the web.

  1. Go to Google.
  2. Type in your search in question. Don’t hit search.
  3. Following (or before, it doesn’t matter) the search, type the following string: “site:argusleader.com” or “site:politicalsmokeout.tumblr.com” or “site:sdsos.gov” or whatever. You don’t need the quotation marks.
  4. Search. Your results will be confined to that particular domain.

Tags: technology

Our texting governor

Like Cory Heidelberger, I was struck to learn that Gov. Dennis Daugaard is a big user of text messages to communicate with his family and staff.

That revelation was among the interesting things I included in my profile of Daugaard’s inner circle of advisers in Sunday’s paper.

The disclose came almost by accident. I was talking to the Governor’s Executive Committe (or “GECo” as they call it) members about the governor’s process for gathering information before making a decision.

Tony Venhuizen mentioned how if the governor is in Pierre, he’ll usually meet with him at least once or twice in person on any given day, sometimes much more. That caused Lt. Gov. Matt Michels to add his two cents.

"You say meet. Today, I shot him three emails and one text. Those had to deal with the National Guard," Michels said.

I stopped things there.

"We have a texting governor?" I asked

"Oh yeah," replied Deb Bowman.

The governor confirmed this story when I talked with him later, explaining that his kids helped get him into texting and that he still uses correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in his texts. (I do, too, in emails, texts and instant messages. Spending my teenage years heavily IMing in complete sentences probably did more than anything to develop my high-speed typing skills.)

Here’s the relevant section of the article:

The governor also peppers his advisers with requests throughout the day. Whether in his office or traveling, Daugaard always has his Android smartphone at hand to send emails and text messages back and forth with his staff.

Daugaard said his children introduced him to text messaging.

“Texting is really very helpful, especially when you’re in a noisy environment or you’re in a meeting and you can’t take a call but can take a sneak peak at a text — if you can do that politely.”

But even as a texting governor, Daugaard hasn’t bent to some of the conventions of the medium.

“I should learn the abbreviation lingo, but old habits die hard,” he said. “I still punctuate and capitalize.”

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