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.