Despite new law, Nebraska may not see self-driving cars soon

Photo credit: MGN Online

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers may have cleared the way for companies to test self-driving vehicles with a law passed earlier this year, but don't expect a large number to hit the streets anytime soon.

Although industry officials say Nebraska has positioned itself well to embrace the technology, getting it fully launched will likely take longer than the public expects even in states with friendly laws.

"Motorists headed out to visit Grand Island from Lincoln aren't going to be sharing the road with driverless trucks anytime soon," said Kent Grisham, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association. "They are coming someday, but there's still a lot to be worked out."

Lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved a measure in April that allows autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads as long as the vehicle includes safety features, follows state road rules and is properly insured. Supporters said the law would place Nebraska among the leading contenders to serve as a testing ground for such vehicles.

Grisham said many industry officials believe it will take "several years, if not decades" before fully automated trucks are cruising down public roads. Most of the problems are technological, such as getting trucks to navigate a road where lane markers are covered by snow or steer through congested Omaha traffic.

It's also unclear how driverless trucks will interact with local law enforcement or inspectors who try to stop them to ensure they're safe, Grisham said. He said he wasn't aware of any efforts to lure companies to Nebraska and hasn't heard from any that are interested in using the state as a testing ground. Nebraska would be a good testing site because of its long, flat stretches of road and variable weather, he said.

"There are 1,000 questions we have to answer, things we take for granted with drivers," he said.

Officials in Lincoln had initially planned to launch a driverless shuttle service to carry passengers between downtown Lincoln, the Haymarket District and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's main campus, but a city spokeswoman said the project was delayed and won't arrive in Lincoln for at least another few weeks.

City officials now expect to run smaller-scale tests on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Innovation Campus to work out any possible kinks. Mayor Chris Beutler said the project places Lincoln and the state "at the forefront of innovation that could serve as a national model for the future of transportation in America."

The shift toward self-driving cars and trucks is likely to happen gradually as more of their functions become automated, said John Lindsay, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Lindsay said the new Nebraska law is broad enough to allow the technology to adapt.

"People might have to change their mindset," he said. "Autonomous vehicles aren't just this thing where you have a prototype and then, all of a sudden, you have a product hit the market."

Some semi-autonomous vehicles are already on Nebraska roads, albeit on a smaller scale.

Brevan Jorgenson, of Omaha, converted his 2016 Honda Civic into a self-driving car over the course of about six weeks. Jorgenson, an information technology consultant, can operate his car in self-driving mode. He said he would prefer to see the technology remain unregulated.

Although technology has advanced dramatically in the two years since he upgraded his car, Jorgenson said the public may have unrealistic expectations.

"People seem to think that if we went to 100 percent self-driving cars, there would be no more accidents," he said. "But there will be still be tires that pop, wheels that fall off, and deer. Accidents are a fact of life."

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