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Self-driving cars getting traction with government in Denver and D.C.

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A car that switches lanes without the driver having to touch the wheel, steers to keep itself in the lane, and can move out of the way of an approaching vehicle? A self-driving car might sound like science fiction, but it’s already on the roads in Colorado.

And lawmakers in Denver and Washington, D.C., want to step on the gas.

Dr. Jeffrey Sankoff’s Tesla Model S 85 D is equipped with self-driving features, which he uses on his daily commute from Washington Park to Denver Health Medical Center.

When he and his family head to their vacation home in Breckenridge, he says he’s able to let the car “do much of the work” on the challenging mountain roads.

A self-driving car is far from a fully autonomous vehicle in which the driver could take a nap or read a book. But the self-driving features give a feel for what it will be like to step into one of the driver-less cars currently in development not only by technology firms like Google and Apple but also by traditional automakers like General Motors and Volvo.

Bill passes Colorado Senate

Colorado moved a step closer to rolling out self-driving cars this week, when the Senate passed a bill that would allow them and regulate them.

For now, any use of self-driving vehicles in Colorado – including the world’s first delivery by a driver-less truck, which brought 50,000 beers from Fort Collins to Denver last year – was happening in a legal gray area. No law explicitly allowed the self-driving semi-trailer to be on the road, but no law banned it either.

The bill aims to spur more such research and development and publicity – like that headline-making beer delivery – for Colorado.

The 120-mile beer run was an experiment by a start-up owned by the ride-sharing service Uber, and bill sponsor Sen. Owen Hill (R – Colo. Springs) says he wants to see more of that happening to let “investors, and anyone who’s going to work in this field, know that Colorado is open for business.”

Colorado is far from leading the way on self-driving vehicle legislation: 11 states have passed laws related to autonomous cars, and over the past five years 34 states have considered legislation.

Last fall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued the first-ever federal guidance for the use and development of driver-less cars, but stopped short of issuing regulations. President Trump’s Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao – who’s known as an outspoken proponent of the safety benefits of self-driving carsis currently reviewing those guidelines,

Colorado Senate Bill 213 states that self-driving vehicles will be held to the same “standards set for a human driver.” It also establishes that laws regulating self-driving cars are a matter of “statewide concern” – effectively barring any local governments from setting their own rules for the technology.

Not everyone is a fan

The Senate bill on driver-less vehicles has bipartisan sponsors so is expected to pass in the Democrat-controlled House. But not everyone supports it.

Locomotive engineer Michael Seliquini says there’s more to the bill than meets they eye. “It looks like this nice little bill that just makes us safer,” but he argues that it gives too much freedom to the corporations developing the technology.

“In reality, it relies on corporate goodwill and self-regulation rather than thorough testing,” says Seliquini, who’s a member of SMART Local 202 union.

“You don’t ask a 16 year-old if they can follow the rules of the road, you make them prove it before they get the keys,” he says.

Seliquini’s concerns extend beyond safety, to the possible impact of driver-less cars on the tens of thousands of people currently employed as drivers in Colorado.

Just how soon?

“Two years ago, if you had asked me if we’d be out testing autonomous vehicles today, I would have said no,” says General Motors executive director of emerging technologies policy Harry Lightsey. “But today we have over fifty self-driving vehicles which we’re testing in San Francisco, Scottsdale, and Detroit.”

Lightsey predicts it won’t be long before the vehicles move past the test phase and onto the streets.

“It will be just another year or two before we see self-driving cars, most likely offered by ride-sharing services,” says Lightsey, adding that being able to hail a self-driving car will be a handy introduction to the technology since a majority of Americans say they don’t trust a computer in the driver’s seat

The Colorado Department of Transportation sees driver-less vehicles as a major element of its ambitious RoadX program, which aims to use technology to make our roads safer and make traffic flow more efficiently.

“What we are faced with is an epidemic of deaths on our roadways,” says CDOT executive director Shailen Bhatt, who’s confident that “autonomous vehicles will play a huge role” in reversing the rising number of auto fatalities in Colorado.

How safe are they?

Tesla took a public relations hit last year, when a driver using the technology was killed in a collision for the first time.

Joshua Brown died when a tractor-trailer made a left-turn in front of his Tesla Model S on a Florida highway, and the car failed to apply the brakes.

In response to the deadly crash, Tesla CEO Elon Musk issued a statement deflecting blame – reminding drivers that they’re supposed to keep their hands on the wheel.

Sankoff, the Tesla-driving Denver doctor, agrees with industry experts who say cars with self-driving features could go a long way towards reducing the 94 percent of accidents caused by human error.

As an emergency physician, Sankoff deals first-hand with the consequences of car crashes.

“I don’t think of them as accidents, I think of them as collisions” with identifiable causes that can be prevented, Sankoff says.

The Tesla, he says, does a much better job at reacting to its surroundings than any driver he knows.

Sankoff is certain that “as the technology advances, it will get better and better at protecting us from ourselves.”

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