Hill on a possible upside to Colorado transportation woes: Let’s embrace autonomous vehicles!

Author: John Tomasic - March 13, 2017 - Updated: March 13, 2017

Colorado Republican state Senators at the Capitol, seated from left, Jerry Sonnenberg, Jack Tate, Owen Hill, March 13, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
Colorado Republican state Senators at the Capitol, seated from left, Jerry Sonnenberg, Jack Tate, Owen Hill, March 13, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

State Sen. Owen Hill is not for letting the crisis of Colorado’s inadequate transportation go to waste.

There may or may not be a transportation funding bill passed this legislative session or any legislative session. The population is booming and the roads are crumbling. There won’t be any ski train coming any time soon. Coloradans are desperate. It’s past time to be bold!

Hill told reporters Monday morning that he thinks Colorado could become an engine for the autonomous vehicle revolution. He said it’s worth getting out front of other states by moving now to put the fast-evolving technology to use on our roads and invite entrepreneurs and companies working the sector to set up shop here.

“The future of transportation. What’s it gonna look like? What’s the technology available out there?” he said. He had walked into the 8:00 a.m. meeting 10 minutes late. It took him an hour and 45 minutes to drive the 70 miles between Colorado Springs where he lives and the Capitol in Denver. “Stuck on I-25,” he said, shaking his head.

Hill is sponsor of Senate Bill 213, which is being heard this week in the Senate transportation committee. The bill would promote use of self-driving cars in Colorado by declaring “regulation of automated driving systems” a matter of statewide concern. The designation is an attempt to avoid the development of patchwork rule-makings that can slow rollout and adoption of new technologies and hobble cutting-edge industries.

“How does this technology shift access and mobility for everyone?” he said. “Other states have looked at it and said it’s a scary proposition without the imagination to say, What can this look like? Uber famously put all their self-driving cars on trucks and shipped them out of California to Arizona.”

In December, after battling with California state regulators, Uber packed off at least nine of its fleet of 16 self-driving Volvos. Residents of Phoenix later reported seeing them moving around the city streets.

“Here in Colorado we have a chance to say, Come and set up shop here,” Hill said. “There’s technology, there’s manufacturing, there’s American jobs tied to this — and Colorado has the opportunity to become a real hub for it…

“So how do we do it in a way that can address all different elements, from the mountains to the rains to the snow?” Hill asked.

It’s a question already being weighed by officials on the ground in Colorado.

Last year, the Colorado Department of Transportation teamed with Panasonic on the latest installment of its RoadX transportation-update plan. It’s a vehicle-to-infrastructure information-sharing platform that will blanket a 144-mile mountain commuter corridor on I-70 with communication nodes that planners say will bring advanced notification about conditions to networked automobiles with drivers or without.

“This will start to build the bridge to 2025, when as much as 10 percent of the vehicles [in production] will be autonomous,” Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America, told Route 50 in November.

“The thing about this that amazes me, though, is the accelerating speed of development, how far and fast it’s being applied,” he said. “Three or four years ago, no one was thinking autonomous vehicles would be a regular sight on the roads. Two or three years from now, they’ll be all around us.”

Who needs a ski train when autonomous vehicles stream up the highway in a line at a similarly steady pace?

“These are game-changing ideas,” Hill said.

His bipartisan bill, sponsored with Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno and Democratic Reps. Jeff bridges and Faith Winter, has already been well received by industry, he said.

“They’re saying this is one of the most friendly bills, one of the most friendly policies they’ve ever seen. It’s an exciting opportunity to say that Colorado is open for business.”

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.