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A state task force wants self-driving cars on the road in Minnesota. Legislators aren’t so sure

An advisory panel’s proposals have already revealed fault lines at the Legislature, where lawmakers from both parties doubt how fast the state should leap into the self-driving market.

Traffic under the Plymouth Avenue bridge.
Traffic under the Plymouth Avenue bridge.

Autonomous vehicles have largely been absent from Minnesota roads, even as fleets of driverless cars already patrol the streets in states like Arizona and California.

State Sen. Scott Newman
State Sen. Scott Newman
But after months of research by a state task force, Minnesota might finally take cautious steps toward fostering the industry. The panel has drafted bills that would allow driverless cars on private roads, and maybe public ones, too, as long as they pass scrutiny from the Department of Transportation. 

The potential economic upsides of such technology are well documented. Yet early in the 2019 legislative session, key lawmakers aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to usher in a Silicon Valley-type vision of autonomous Ubers and hands-free commutes.

“The preeminent question is safety,” said state Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican from Hutchinson who chairs the Senate’s Transportation Finance and Policy Committee. “We cannot put automated vehicles on the road until we are absolutely certain they are at least as safe as a human driver.”

Task force wants MN to allow testing

Testing of autonomous vehicles in Minnesota has been sharply limited because state laws, written long before the self-driving technology, don’t explicitly authorize them. There have only been small-scale trials — such as an automated shuttle demonstration during the Super Bowl last year overseen by MnDOT.

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But with the rapid spread of companies like Waymo and Uber experimenting with self-driving cars across the country, former Gov. Mark Dayton created an advisory council in March to study how Minnesota could get a piece of the action. The council was made up of representatives from businesses including Amazon, 3M, Xcel Energy and Polaris; government officials like Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey; and community advocates like disability nonprofit Mobility Mania.

Their resulting 66-page report delivers a rosy outlook on automated cars, focusing mostly on the potential for crash prevention the bevy of positives the businesses could bring for the economy and people with disabilities that make travel difficult. To not legalize the technology in some fashion would mean falling behind the rest of the country, the report warns.

Governor's Advisory Council
“Failure to take action could jeopardize safety, impose additional infrastructure costs, increase congestion, lose businesses and economic development opportunities, displace workers, decrease health benefits and even further increase equity disparities,” says the report.

Draft legislation created by the council would set up a permit system for companies that want to test self-driving vehicles. MnDOT would then have wide latitude to decide whether to allow a business to test on private or public roads based on their history with self-driving technology. Companies would have to report collisions and other data and would face misdemeanor charges for operating without a permit.

A no go for public roads?

MnDOT officials cautioned the bills were still just a preliminary offering and likely to be tweaked before they officially reach the Legislature. Gov. Tim Walz has also yet to review them. But the current proposals have already revealed fault lines at the Legislature, where lawmakers from both parties doubt how fast the state should leap into the self-driving market.

Newman, the Republican Senator, told MinnPost he wouldn’t support testing self-driving cars on public roads yet because he’s not convinced they’re safe enough. Bills related to autonomous vehicles would typically need approval from Newman’s committee to advance. “We’d have to have a lot more information available to us in terms of the status of automation before I’d be willing to take that step to allow testing on public roads,” Newman said.

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To back up his case, the Republican cited the self-driving Uber that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., in March. It was the first death of a pedestrian tied to autonomous vehicles, the Arizona Republic reported at the time.

Of course, Newman said, humans aren’t exactly flawless drivers. Roughly 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2017, according to the National Safety Council, a nonprofit that works to reduce driving deaths. The vast majority of those were caused by human errors, according to the state task force report. And in the long-run, proponents of self-driving cars say the technology should reduce crashes.

But measuring how safe driverless cars currently are in comparison to humans is still difficult, in part because the technology is so new and the data is limited.

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble
Minneapolis Sen. Scott Dibble, the top DFLer on the transportation committee, said before testing can be allowed on public roads, he thinks there needs to be more study to figure out thorny questions, such as who is legally liable when autonomous cars crash. And he said buy-in is needed from Minnesota residents. He mentioned reports of Arizonans trying to run self-driving cars off the road, attacking them with rocks and slashing their tires.

“While I’m interested in the advancement of technology for all the good things it might offer, I don’t look at it with rose-colored glasses,” Dibble said. “Part of my concern is using our public streets and, by extension, our public as our laboratory before the technology is actually proven.”

A group of Republican and DFL lawmakers last year proposed banning self-driving cars altogether after the fatal crash in Arizona. Matching bills in the House and Senate were sponsored by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis. (The House version was co-sponsored by Peggy Flanagan, who is now lieutenant governor, and Ilhan Omar, who is now a Congresswoman serving the 5th District.)

Dibble said even though the bill failed, it helps proves there is little appetite in the Legislature for testing on public roads. Dibble said he doesn’t envision much backlash from lawmakers against testing autonomous vehicles on private land, but he said there’s no rush for the Legislature to go further. Dibble said the state should take a comprehensive approach to regulation to help Minnesota sidestep potential downsides of a world in which self-driving cars are a dominant mode of transportation.

“There are a lot of questions about if it’s going to usher in a utopia or a dystopia,” Dibble said. “I can literally envision in my mind sci-fi films that I’ve seen where there’s not a single soul outdoors. It’s all just cars everywhere and everyone’s inside and the cars are just running around picking up your pizzas and your dry cleaning and no one has to interact with each other anymore. And it’s suburban sprawl hell.”