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State moves closer to driverless car testing

A rendering of a driverless car Shutterstock A rendering of a driverless car

A Democratic legislator is drafting a bill for the 2019 session


Legislation is being developed that would pave the way for testing driverless cars in Oregon.

Rep. Susan McLain (D-Hillsboro) is drafting a bill for the 2019 session that would allow limited testing of autonomous vehicles. The bill, she says, is modeled closely on legislation in California and Washington.

“There’s just a lot to look at,” McLain says. “We’re starting slow with the basics on testing.”



Uber and other technology companies want to step on the gas. McLain says the bill will “remain silent” on commercial deployment—selling the cars to the public. That’s something the industry explicitly asked for in earlier discussions.  

McLain’s bill is based in part on recommendations submitted in September from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s autonomous vehicle task force. The group of 33 industry and government representatives recommended that the state establish a framework for testing, but hold off on deployment. The committee members voted unanimously, but they remained far from agreement. Many submitted public comment letters clarifying their positions.     

A schism between tech and active transportation advocates was evident in the comment letters. The League of American Bicyclists, a national nonprofit advocacy group, alluded to an Uber driverless car killing a woman walking in Tempe, Arizona in March as reason to put on the brakes. The Technology Association of Oregon played down the incident, commenting that “only one person was killed,” by an autonomous vehicle, while drunk drivers kill around 28 people per day.


“There’s just a lot to look at,” McLain says. “We’re starting slow with the basics on testing.”


In his letter to the task force, Uber spokesman Jon Isaacs expressed concern that Oregon is “falling behind” other states in developing autonomous vehicle policy and wrote that a testing-only policy would have “limited utility.” He wrote that the tech industry’s views were underrepresented with four of the 33 task force members, and that they would not support a bill that doesn’t spell out a path to deployment.

Joanie Deutsch, executive director of TechNet, a national network of technology CEOs, warned that a testing-only policy might not lead to testing at all. Nine states already authorized deployment, Deutsch noted, so companies might just test in other states with friendlier legislation.

Sometimes, Deutsch wrote, “the greater good demands cautiously taking an action that is not strictly consistent with the law.” Basically, advance technology first and the law will catch up.


Sometimes, Deutsch wrote, “the greater good demands cautiously taking an action that is not strictly consistent with the law.”


McLain said she’s continuing to meet industry to address their concerns. The testing legislation, she says, will eventually lead to deployment, but the process can’t be rushed. Deployment would require amending 26 state statutes and would take at least five years.

In the rush to deployment, some user groups are getting left by the roadside. In another public comment, bike and walk activists called out the Oregon Department of Transportation for pressing ahead without representing the interests of vulnerable road users. While Uber complained about having only four tech representatives on the task force, bike and walk groups were left with exactly zero. Despite a host of organizations—Oregon Walks, the Community Cycling Center, Bike Portland—expressing interest, none made it on the roster.

“The Pedestrian/Bicycle/Vulnerable Road user viewpoint is missing in every material packet presented on the ODOT website,” wrote A.J. Zelada, a board member for the League of American Bicyclists. 



Zelada noted that driverless cars behave erratically around people walking and biking. In San Francisco, researchers found autonomous vehicles exhibited four of the five driver behaviors most likely to endanger vulnerable road users. In Pittsburgh, a bike advocacy group recorded a number of near misses.

Unions and trade groups also cautioned against rushing autonomous vehicle legislation. The Oregon AFL-CIO testified about the impacts on the 70,000 workers in the state’s transportation industry. Todd Spencer, CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a nonprofit that represents commercial drivers, wrote that, “a hurried and misguided introduction of AVs” would prove unsafe and threaten the jobs of 3.9 million people with a commercial driver’s license. If driverless cars take the wheel, drivers will need workforce training to transition to other roles.

Planners have dubbed the driverless car revolution a “heaven or hell” scenario. It might either create a network of shared vehicles that clears the road of unneeded cars, or it would create privately owned cars that circle all day instead of paying for parking, and ferry their owners for untold miles.


“They want to make sure there’s nothing that’s a barrier for their innovative forwarding of this technology,” McLain says.  “We agree with them. We just want to make sure we do that correctly.”


The Portland Bureau of Transportation estimates that shared driverless cars would contribute to a 4-43% rise in miles driven, and up to a 16% boost for transit trips. Privately owned cars would mean a 12-68% increase in miles travelled, and a drop in transit ridership of up to 43%.

Countless questions remain. Who’s liable when two driverless cars collide? How should police stop and ticket them? How can we ensure low-income people have access to the technology?

Besides listening to the task force conversations, McLain says she’s read more than 75 articles on all of this, and that’s why she’s taking it slowly. As the 2019 session draws closer, McLain and other legislators are navigating sensitive terrain. They must clear the road for innovation while keeping the necessary stop signs in place. They face mounting pressure from the tech industry as they sort through enormous legal complexity.

“They want to make sure there’s nothing that’s a barrier for their innovative forwarding of this technology,” McLain says.  “We agree with them. We just want to make sure we do that correctly.”


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Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

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