Illinois Self-Driving Car Push Costs Governor an Endorsement

A move to make Illinois a magnet for autonomous vehicle testing could cost the state’s governor when voters go to the polls in November.

ABATE of Illinois Political Action Committee, which advocates for motorcyclists, rescinded its endorsement of Gov. Bruce Rauner after he signed an executive order on October 25 that will allow companies to test AVs on public roads.

Rauner, a Republican, is up for re-election on November 6.

The PAC slammed Rauner and the state’s transportation department for launching the Autonomous Illinois initiative.

“They have decided to put motorcyclists’ lives at risk by turning Illinois roads into a field experiment for an unproven technology still in its infancy while providing very few safeguards to the public. ABATE is extremely disappointed in the governor’s actions today,” State Legislative Coordinator Josh Witkowski wrote in a statement.

A spokesman for Rauner’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

ABATE’s action highlights the political risks of promoting self-driving cars, a technology that could attract big investments but that critics say may cost lives in the short run and jobs if it is widely adopted. States including Arizona, California and Michigan have taken steps to encourage AV development, and more are looking to join in.

“This is the first time I’ve seen an action quite like this with respect to supporting automated vehicles, but it likely won’t be the last,” Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid told TU Automotive.

ABATE of Illinois has a membership “well into the thousands,” Witkowski told TU Automotive. On its website, the group lists dozens of bills it says it has influenced in the Illinois Legislature.

Autonomous Illinois is an interagency plan to enable development of connected and automated vehicles in the state. It includes a registration program for AV tests. Anyone who wants to put AVs on public roads needs to certify that the vehicles meet federal vehicle safety standards, are insured, and have a licensed driver behind the wheel at all times to take over.

Tests can begin as soon as the state has been notified. If there is clear evidence that a vehicle is unsafe or the tests violate the program rules, the state can suspend a participant until they have proved they comply.

ABATE’s Witkowski said that’s not strict enough. Among other things, he wants a requirement for two safety drivers in every car and independent tests to verify the performance of each car’s sensors. Data about the tests should be shared with the public as it is under California’s program, he said. And autonomous semi-trucks, which appear to be allowed in the program, are too dangerous for motorcyclists, Witkowski said. He hopes the state legislature passes laws that impose some of these constraints.

ABATE isn’t against self-driving cars, which someday may see motorcyclists on the road better than human drivers do, he said. But so far, tests have shown they often don’t.

“Until we see responsible development of that potential, we’re not ready to say, ‘Yeah, turn them loose on public streets,'” Witkowski said.

Motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists are at greater risk from unsafe AVs than cars are, analyst Abuelsamid said. Self-driving cars need to scan their surroundings, identify all objects, predict where they’re going, plan a safe path, and then carry it out. That’s harder with non-car road users because they can change direction more suddenly, he said.

“I can certainly understand the concerns of the motorcyclists’ group, and they are valid,” Abuelsamid said.

While Witkowski is cautiously hopeful about autonomous cars, he’s not interested in self-driving motorcycles.

“A motorcycle is about freedom of personal movement,” he said. “If the motorcycle is driving for you, where is the personal freedom of movement?”

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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