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Bill to Legalize Autonomous Vehicles Moves Forward in Illinois Legislature

4:37 PM CST on February 20, 2019

The aftermath of the crash that killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe last March.

State legislation that would make it legal to operate self-driving cars on Illinois roads -- and prohibit municipalities from banning the technology -- took a step forward in Springfield last week. HB2575, the Autonomous Vehicles Act, was filed by state rep Michael J. Zalewski and referred to the House Rules Committee on Wednesday, February 13. Read the full text of the bill here.

The new law would allow fully autonomous vehicles to drive on Illinois highways, whether or not a human driver is physically present in the vehicle. The automated driving system would be considered the operator of the vehicle when it comes to determining whether relevant traffic or motor vehicle laws are being obeyed. The bill would provide "that liability for incidents involving a fully autonomous vehicle shall be determined under existing product liability law or common law negligence principles." And it would preempt home rule powers, so that if, say, Chicago decided that self-driving cars are unsafe for hectic downtown streets, City Council wouldn't be able to pass an ordinance prohibiting their use in certain areas.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to greatly improve safety on our streets by eliminating the most dangerous part of a car, "the nut behind the wheel," as the old joke goes. However, many have argued that the technology isn't ready for prime time.

There were three fatalities tied to self-driving technology companies in a little over the year, including the death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, in March 2018. In her case, Streetsblog USA's Angie Schmitt reported, Uber had turned off important safety features in its rush to get autonomous vehicles to market, and had hired an inattentive backup driver. A July 2018 poll commissioned by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety found that the vast majority of respondents weren't comfortable with the idea of sharing the road with AVs.

Image: Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
Image: Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
Image: Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

This afternoon Zalewski, whose district includes parts of the west and southwest suburbs, told me that the original incarnation of the bill was introduced about two years ago, after meetings with representatives of several AV-tech-involved companies, including General Motors, Ford, Uber, Lyft, and Waymo. The companies wanted to be able to operate unmanned driverless cars on Illinois roads, not just test them with backup drivers. Concerns about liability slowed the legislation, Zalewski said.

The Rules Committee will send the bill to a substantive committee for review, probably Transportation, Zalewski said.

So why is Zalewski in favor of passing this bill? "Eventually these companies are going to try to push the envelope [of what's legal]," Zalewski responded. "Any time there's a regulatory vacuum, we should be proactive about passing safe and smart regulations. I think it's incumbent upon the legislature to pass laws when technology forces the issue."

Michael J. Zalewski
Michael J. Zalewski
Michael J. Zalewski

Why is he particularly concerned with this issue? "I have a large commuter base in my district," Zalewski said. "I think people will eventually start using this tech to get from Point A to Point B, so that's my interest in it."

Zalewski added that he's not optimistic that the bill will pass anytime soon, because liability issues still need to be ironed out. He also said that the preemption of home rule may not stick. "I think that's an open question."

But judging from what happened in Tempe, would this law make Illinois pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists guinea pigs while the AV companies work out the bugs in their systems? "I don't think we'd ever want to put tech that we're not sure about on the road, so that would definitely be of concern to me and my caucus, Zalewski said. "It certainly won't be time [for the technology on public roads] until we have agreement among stakeholders that the time is right for it."

Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said the department wasn't involved in drafting the legislation, but is currently reviewing it.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke said the advocacy group is still looking over the bill, but is opposed to municipalities being blocked from limiting where AVs can travel. "We also want to make sure AVs are sufficiently safe before they are allowed on roads, and we’re still researching what the bill does and doesn’t do to that end."

"Autonomous vehicles could in theory make streets much safer," Burke added. "AVs can also be part of a future with less car ownership and driving and more equitable, safe and sustainable transportation – if they are deployed largely for fleets of vehicles providing 'transportation as a service' as opposed to cars that people own. On both points, all levels of government will need to adopt the right policies to realize these potential benefits."

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