Autonomous vehicles and other technologies topics of importance for Legislature

Wisconsin has to get in gear if it wants to be on the forefront of self-driving vehicles and other high-growth technologies, says the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy.

Rep. Adam Neylon insists pushing for a regulatory framework that reduces limitations on self-driving vehicle testing will be good for the state in multiple ways. One way to do that more effectively, he says, is to create a task force on automated vehicle legislation.

He spoke to this need Tuesday at a meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council’s Innovation Network in Madison, where one of only 10 DOT-approved partnerships in the country testing self-driving vehicles is located.

“I imagine, by next session, if we don’t have legislation, we might fall behind other states,” said Neylon, R-Pewaukee. “There’s quite a few states that have already done legislation to allow self-driving vehicles outside of those test sites.”

Neylon envisions the task force as a group of affected parties like motorcycle advocates, manufacturers, insurance companies and others — anyone who has stake in the game. By coming together and voicing concerns, the group could “come up with a regulatory framework that allows for growth, that’s nonrestrictive, [and] puts public safety as a top priority,” he said.

Public dialogue is so important, he says, because there is a lot of unease surrounding new technologies like drones and automated vehicles. To put those fears to rest, he points to research indicating self-driving cars will dramatically improve safety on Wisconsin roads.

“I’m a huge fan of the idea of self-driving vehicles, and not just because I could read my phone on the way to and from work,” Neylon said. “It will be incredibly safer.”

He said many people he speaks to are “terrified” with the prospect of sharing the road with self-driving vehicles, because they fear one could malfunction and there would be no way for the driver to wrest control in the moment.

Ironically, it’s that very control that makes transportation in human-operated vehicles so dangerous.

“The last figures I saw was that over 90 percent of crashes that result in death are the result of human error,” he said. “The fact is, if you remove human error from the equation, we are going to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and it will be thousands of lives immediately.”

He also argued leading the way on autonomous vehicles will be an economic booster for Wisconsin, and he put other technologies in the same boat.

“I am probably the only pro-drone legislator in the whole Legislature,” Neylon said. “And I stood up in caucus and I said “I’m pro-drone,” and people laughed!”

He says many in the Legislature see drones as more of a hobby, rather than a new technology with actual economic potential. So while an image change at the state level could allow for more tech development in Wisconsin, Neylon points to certain federal regulation as stifling this kind of progress across the country.

“FAA rules are terrible; I mean, we are falling behind,” Neylon said. “There are other countries developing drone taxis, there are countries that have drone delivery — and we can’t; because of federal rules and regulations, we can’t even fly a drone out of our line of sight right now.”

Neylon says the current strategy for creating an autonomous vehicle task force is to get it done through an executive order. He said Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, recently sat down with Gov. Scott Walker and others from his office to pitch the task force idea.

“They’re open to it, and they’re looking into it,” Neylon said. “And if that route doesn’t pan out, then we plan to introduce that as legislation.”

See an earlier story on autonomous vehicles in Wisconsin:

–By Alex Moe