Wisconsin needs to prepare for self-driving vehicles, industry leaders and academics say

Wisconsin needs to get ready for a future dominated by self-driving vehicles, industry leaders and academics told a Capitol hearing.

And that future is approaching — no matter what your view, according to Peter Rafferty, (pictured here) program manager for UW-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to continue to proliferate, regardless,” Rafferty said Wednesday at an informational hearing for the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy. “It’s not whether you agree or disagree with what’s going on — they are going to be happening.”

The TOPS lab was part of the effort that resulted in the U.S. DOT designating a Wisconsin-based partnership as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicles, or AVs.

The Wisconsin AV Proving Grounds include MGA’s Burlington site, which contains over 400 acres of roads and crash-test facilities, and the 4-mile racing circuit at Road America in Plymouth. Also included are Epic Systems’ campus roads and the streets of UW-Madison.

Rafferty says pursuing innovation and expansion of autonomous vehicles will require people from government, industry and academia to collaborate.

“We have an opportunity as a community to be a part of that, to help guide development, to help approach things in a very thoughtful and safer way as these technologies mature and proliferate into a variety of different markets and different circumstances,” Rafferty said.

Rep. Adam Neylon, chair of the Assembly committee, called autonomous vehicles in Wisconsin “a very interesting and pressing topic,” adding there are important questions to answer as the Legislature examines the issue.

“Does Wisconsin need policy here in the state?” Neylon asked. “Do we want to depend on the federal government putting together rules and regulations that will impact all states, so we don’t have patchwork legislation state-to-state? And how do we balance public safety versus innovation?”

The new Federal Automated Vehicle Policy, released in September, “makes it clear that Washington will keep a ‘hands-off’ attitude” when it comes to regulating development of autonomous vehicles, according to a memo to the committee from Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

Neylon, R-Pewaukee, pointed out that fears surrounding autonomous vehicles largely have to do with potential dangers, but said implementing AV technology could actually save tens of thousands of lives, according to reports he has read.

AV technology has the potential to minimize human error on the road, as automated systems will control every aspect of the vehicle’s motion based on data from GPS, radar, laser technology and other sources.

“We have distractions everywhere, and one of the benefits that we have with autonomous vehicles is reducing that human error that goes along with that,” said David Noyce, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison.

He says in 20 or 25 years, autonomous vehicles will make up the majority of vehicles on the roadway.

“And for the next generation that comes after us, they’re not going to know a transportation system that’s any different,” Noyce said.

Uber is already testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, demonstrating that AV technology has potential applications in a variety of industries.

“As we talk about self-driving, I think it’s important to understand the broader context of the future of mobility, and what this means for cities and towns and the people who live in them,” said Lisa Schrader, Uber’s director of public affairs for the central U.S. “About how we can enhance safety, reduce congestion, reduce pollution and parking, as well as improve access to transportation using private cars for public good.”

In 2015 alone, there were 34,092 traffic deaths in the United States, and 94 percent of those were due to human error, according to Damon Shelby Porter, director of state government affairs for Global Automakers, a public policy advisory group representing U.S. divisions of major motor vehicle manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai and more.

He says improved safety is the major benefit, but increasing the numbers of self-driving cars will also save people time and fuel.

“With all of this high degree of activity and testing, we have significant challenges for the auto industry,” Porter said. “And given the significant benefits that these technologies will offer, it’s important that we have the right regulatory framework at both the state and federal level.”

–By Alex Moe