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Minnesota Task Force, Legislators at Odds Over Self-driving Car Testing

By: Bridget Clerkin February 21, 2019
An advisory council recommends the state begin testing autonomous cars, but Minnesota officials have doubts.
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It may be nicknamed after a famous navigational tool, but when it comes to national transportation trends, the North Star State is especially likely to follow its own path.

As much of the rest of the country has raced to embrace autonomous cars, some Minnesota lawmakers remain skeptical of how quickly the technology should be unleashed on its roads.

The discussion came to a head late in January after an advisory council created last year by then-Governor Mark Dayton released a 66-page report, ultimately recommending the state allow for the testing of self-driving cars.

The comprehensive report lays out a number of related projects and goals, including the development of more “smart” infrastructure across the state, the drafting and adoption of appropriate rules and regulations, and the creation of several subcommittees to keep an eye on the vehicles’ progress. Failing to take action, the council advises, would leave Minnesota vulnerable to road safety issues, rising infrastructure costs, greater congestion, and the loss of considerable economic opportunities.

Still, for some lawmakers, the cost of acting too soon was far higher.

State senator Scott Newman, who chairs the all-important Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, aired concerns over the relative newness of the technology, saying he would be wary of putting any autonomous cars on the road without being “absolutely certain” they were at least as safe as a human driver. It’s unlikely a future self-driving cars law in Minnesota could pass through the legislature without approval of his group.

His fellow committee member Scott Dibble agreed, saying the cars should be kept off the road until further research is done on several tricky tropics, including who should be held legally responsible in the case of a self-driving crash. Dibble also called for more state residents to get onboard with the idea before lawmakers follow through on testing, citing a rash of incidents in Arizona involving people attacking or otherwise threatening the inanimate objects.

The state even went as far as proposing a bill last year to prohibit the testing and use of all autonomous cars on its roads, though the measure failed to pass.

Yet, it’s not the first time Minnesota has bucked a national trend. The North Star State also issued legislation to prevent the adoption of the federal REAL ID Act.

That measure was subsequently repealed after Minnesota was deemed “uncompliant” with the law by the Department of Homeland Security, leaving it to face a number of federal consequences. The state now expects to begin issuing REAL IDs by this March—but whether those license holders will be able to hop into an autonomous car anytime soon still remains to be seen.

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