Kansas Senate plans OK semifinals without drivers

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Senate Bill 379, pending hearings at the Senate Transportation Committee this week, seeks to allow large driverless trucks on Kansas highways.

SHANE KEYSER

Kansas City Star

“A 25,000-pound truck and no one driving” sounds like the chorus of a country tune or the antagonist of a dystopian novel. Unfortunately, it’s neither in Kansas. Senate Bill 379, awaiting hearings at the Senate Transportation Committee this week, aims to haul large, driverless rigs down our Kansas highways and let them loose without state-mandated testing, inspection, oversight, or accountability — only the vague notion of federal surveillance and verbal assurances of security. The entire bill on the subject – the bill alone – is a whopping two pages. Imagining a driverless semiconductor next to your family on the highway at 80 miles per hour is intimidating. But what if you knew that the computer driving the tractor-trailer had not been specially registered, tested or inspected in our state?

The concept of driverless passenger cars turned out to be quite frightening, especially after Tesla’s prototypes started ramming into walls and emergency vehicles. Rather than recalling its dangerous vehicles, Tesla simply installed a software update, angering the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA said the software maker is responsible for vehicle operations and complained that Tesla should have recalled the vehicles instead. After yet another failure of the self-driving stop feature in its prototypes, Tesla has recalled an additional 54,000 cars. These failures happen when you replace humans with computers in such an important function as driving – and they will happen again. This is one of the main purposes of testing, inspection, monitoring and accountability: to promote safety. After all, car crashes and other unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 44.

Here in Kansas, Walmart and its California partner, Gatik, are seeking to pass Senate Bill 379, giving big corporations and their 25,000+ pound self-driving trucks access to our freeways. They say safety is the number one goal while acknowledging that there is no federal law occupying the autonomous vehicle landscape and pushing for state law that contains few standards. They say driverless tractor-trailers will only travel the “average mile,” which are essentially fixed, repeatable intrastate routes. They don’t mention that any of these routes could run from Liberal to Kansas City or from Pittsburgh to Colby if they wanted to.

Their law does not require them to pre-register their self-driving vehicles with the state of Kansas or subject driving hardware and software to testing. It does not hold them legally liable for traffic violations unless they are the legal owner of the vehicle – the company that actually operates the vehicle with its software gets away with it for free. The owner only needs to purchase $25,000 of insurance in case a driverless semiconductor causes a death. The bill doesn’t even require the vehicle to stop in the event of an accident or for the company’s designated person to speak with law enforcement before it leaves the scene.

Maybe these are just issues to be ironed out – but when? Once the bill passes and the stand-alone semi-finals hit the road, all bets are off. No one running the show is going back to the Legislative Assembly and asking for more accountability or oversight. And one of the main points of the bill is to deprive our cities of the right to establish their own safety rules and requirements.

Driverless utility vehicles are finally coming to Kansas. But what will be the rules, who will ensure our safety and who will be responsible in the event of a security failure? Our Legislative Assembly is behind the wheel, but we need to let them know we are watching.

Norman D. Briggs