State, federal lawmakers pave the way for self-driving cars in Illinois
September 8, 2017

State, federal lawmakers pave the way for self-driving cars in Illinois

As Illinois’ state government and the federal government move toward promoting the development of autonomous vehicles, Chicago aldermen are taking a combative stance against the budding industry.

A new era of transportation may soon arrive in Illinois, with lawmakers at the state and federal levels paving the way for autonomous vehicles.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 6 passed the Self Drive Act, a bipartisan measure regulating autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads. The bill would allow automakers to apply for exemptions from certain transportation safety regulations, and permit up to 25,000 self-driving cars on the road in the first year, and up to 100,000 such vehicles within three years, according to Reuters.

U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, lauded the measure for allowing “innovation [to] flourish without the heavy hand of government,” in a statement reported by Wired.

And on Aug. 25, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill that prohibits local measures to ban self-driving cars in Illinois.

Proponents of autonomous vehicles have touted them as a way to promote safety, fuel efficiency and increased access to transportation, including for the elderly and persons with disabilities. Automakers, business groups and advocates for the blind hailed the bill, according to Reuters.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky helped craft the legislation at the federal level, and has noted that “[a]utonomous vehicles have great potential to improve safety on our roads by reducing accidents caused by human error.”

This is significant, as the National Safety Council reported in 2017 that motor vehicle fatalities increased 6 percent between 2015 and 2016 and hit 40,000 for the first time since 2007. A report issued in 2015 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed human error caused almost 95 percent of car crashes in a federal study on crash causation.

Although the Self Drive Act would allow car makers to apply for exemptions from some safety regulations that assume a human driver is operating the car, they would have to prove their autonomous vehicles are at least as safe as existing cars, according to Reuters. Automakers would also need to inform consumers and regulators about their vehicles’ cybersecurity and privacy protections, according to the Washington Post. The measure would pre-empt any state laws that dictate performance standards, although states could still regulate insurance, licensing, registration and safety inspections for the vehicles.

Chicago seeking to stifle innovation

Springfield’s move to block local governments from banning self-driving technology was well-timed, as a patchwork of locally unique rules could have become a compliance nightmare. And certain Chicago aldermen appear hell-bent on putting up roadblocks.

In 2016, Aldermen Ed Burke, 14th Ward, and Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, introduced an ordinance to ban autonomous vehicles on Chicago streets. And in August, Burke showed aldermen a clip from the movie “Back to the Future” – which involved a sports car that could time travel – to illustrate the hazards that could accompany the reckless use of cars with advanced technology.

Beale focused on the potential job losses from autonomous vehicle development and described self-driving cars as a “job killer” that could threaten the livelihoods of professional drivers.

This is no surprise, as these aldermen have long shown support for the taxicab industry, which has contributed thousands of dollars in campaign cash to both Beale and Burke over the years.

In fact, over just the last few years, Beale and Burke have backed several measures to protect taxicab companies at the expense of popular and innovative services such as ridesharing.

In 2014, the aldermen tried to ban ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft from operating in Chicago. After the outright ban failed to pass, the aldermen in 2016 backed regulations aimed at ridesharing drivers, such as requiring drivers to obtain special chauffeur’s licenses and prohibiting them from driving cars more than 6 years old unless they submit their vehicles for semiannual testing.

In August, Beale pushed through the Committee on Transportation and Public Way a measure to require ridesharing drivers to submit photographs to the city and undergo city-overseen fingerprinting, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The proposed ordinance would also restrict ridesharing companies’ ability to raise fares in times of increased demand, a practice referred to as “surge pricing.”

Ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have invested in and already conducted limited testing of autonomous vehicles. Along with automakers and other tech industry groups, ridesharing companies look to autonomous vehicles for the potential to increase safety and efficiency, and increase transportation access for more riders.

If the Self Drive Act becomes law, states across the country will have to make way for autonomous vehicles. Time will tell how many local barriers some Chicago politicians will try to throw up to hinder this progress.

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