State Lawmakers Tout Self-Driving Cars at Hearing

The prospect of self-driving vehicles on Wisconsin roads got a warm reception from state lawmakers at an informational hearing at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

Legislators on the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy peppered speakers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in addition to officials with companies like Uber and General Motors, with questions on the emerging technology.

They raised concerns ranging from cybersecurity to how the cars would handle deer crossings. But for the most part, committee members hailed the technology as an exciting development.

“I am absolutely sold. I have experience through a friend who uses these things out in Seattle,” said Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview. “He swears by 'em.”

“It's really an exciting topic, and one I'm sure we're going to be involved in,” added Rep. Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha.

Many of the legislators said they were particularly keen on attracting business and research centered on driverless technology. Macco said that kind of economic activity could be a way of bringing younger workers to the region.

“We have less millennials than we do boomers,” he said. “Here's a reason to attract those young lives to our state.”

The crux of the testimony at the hearing came from two engineering researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Madison leading an effort to bring autonomous vehicles to Wisconsin for testing. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently designated the state as an officially sanctioned proving grounds. The designation means that experimental autonomous vehicles could be on Wisconsin's roads within the year.

Rafferty stressed to lawmakers that the advent of driverless cars isn't up for debate.

“It's not a question of whether you agree or disagree with what's going on,” he said. “They are going to be happening.”

Lisa Schrader, a public affairs official with Uber, echoed that idea. She stressed that the future is one in which autonomous cars, coupled with ridesharing, will increasingly become the norm.

“If you have a child or a grandchild or a niece or nephew under 10 years old today, it's less likely that the first thing they do before they turn 16 is get a driver's license,” she said.

Doug Rebout, a local farmer, also gave a presentation on what autonomous vehicles looks like in agriculture, an area in which the technology has already seen some integration. He said that thanks to autonomous combines and tractors, he and his family have been able to drastically change their workflow.

“We're able to go relax, and we're able to pay attention to other things that are going on in the field,” said Rebout.

The informational hearing came as an increasing number of states pass laws permitting autonomous vehicles on their roads, and laying out rules on what they can or cannot do. Wisconsin currently has no autonomous vehicle laws on the books.

Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, has said he is planning to introduce an autonomous vehicles bill for Wisconsin this session. The Assembly GOP also have the issue on their agenda.