Once the fantasy of science fiction writers, it now looks as if self-driving, autonomous vehicles will soon be an integral part of Americans’ daily lives.
Already operating in experimental capacities on residential streets and highways across the United States, autonomous vehicles are anticipated to reach a disruptive level of autonomy before 2022, with full autonomy roughly projected to hit automobile markets by 2030, according to the latest market predictions by consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
And as technology improves, so will adoption: Over the next decade, the global demand for self-driving cars is anticipated to rise significantly, according to March projections by Grand View Research, from an estimated 6,700 units in 2020 to an annual demand of more than 4.22 million by 2030 — a number equivalent to roughly 6% of the estimated global automobile sales in 2020.
Even Congress recognizes what’s coming and, for the past several years, has been working to draft a regulatory framework to prepare America’s highways for the coming stream of self-driving cars, trucks and delivery vehicles expected to dramatically alter the way humans get around over the coming decades.
“There is a clear global race to (autonomous vehicles) and for the U.S. to win that race, Congress must act to create a national framework that provides developers certainty and a clear path to deployment,” House Energy and Commerce Committee leader Greg Walden, R-Ore., and House Communications and Technology Subcommittee leader Bob Latta, R-Ohio, wrote in a joint statement on the reintroduction of 2017’s SELF DRIVE Act earlier this week. “... We cannot allow the U.S. to be outpaced and this effort strikes a critical balance of ensuring safe development and deployment of (autonomous vehicles) while keeping the U.S. at the forefront.”
Wyoming has long been aware of the coming disruption. In 2018, then-Department of Transportation Director William Panos testified before members of the U.S. Senate about Wyoming’s own experience with autonomous vehicles.
In 2017, Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, even introduced legislation calling for an Interstate 80 master plan incorporating regulation for autonomous vehicles. (The bill ultimately failed introduction in the House of Representatives by a 33-27 vote.)
In the years since, however, Wyoming has fallen behind the rest of the country.
Out of the 457 pieces of autonomous vehicle legislation introduced in state legislatures over the past three years, Wyoming has been responsible for just one: Rep. Tim Salazar’s House Bill 226 in 2019. That bill was ultimately not considered for a vote.
Meanwhile, California, Nevada and Arizona have already approved legislation for fully autonomous test fleets to operate in their states, with Florida joining their ranks in July 2019.
Wyoming hopes to reverse that trend this coming legislative session.
This past week, members of the Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs and the Select Committee on Blockchain, Financial Technology and Digital Innovation Technology both contemplated legislation they believe could fast-track Wyoming to a leadership role on autonomous vehicle technology almost overnight and potentially put Wyoming in a position to shape a burgeoning industry, rather than be controlled by it.
“We can either be in that game or not,” Blockchain Committee Co-chair Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, told members of the transportation committee Tuesday. “And I’d rather be in the game. I can’t guarantee we’ll get a manufacturing facility here, but if we don’t have the statutes to make it happen, I guarantee we won’t.”
The 20-page bill — which was tabled until the transportation committee’s final meeting in November — lays out a comprehensive, regulatory framework for the operation of autonomous vehicles in Wyoming, including license, registration and insurance requirements for operators of those vehicles. The draft legislation also includes guidelines for the operation and testing of commercial vehicles in actual, live-traffic scenarios on the state’s roads and highways: a potential selling point for auto manufacturers who may want to stress-test vehicles in Wyoming’s often unpredictable weather conditions.
“If we open the door and provide for it, there will be pretty significant interest in the commercial testing area for Wyoming,” Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said Tuesday afternoon.
Though some initial concern about potential displacement of trucking and logistics jobs in the I-80 corridor was raised in Tuesday’s meeting of the Transportation Committee, lobbyists with the Wyoming Trucking Association noted that autonomous vehicles doing long-haul trips still need operators to fuel the vehicles, while others noted that potential automation could potentially reduce the number of jobs in a sector already rife with openings for a limited number of commercially-licensed drivers.
And, if the state decides to act, there could be a net gain for Wyoming’s economy.