Senate takes up legislation to regulate use of autonomous vehicles in Kansas

Walmart, Gatik seek state law forbidding cities, counties from imposing bans

By: - February 1, 2022 11:34 am
Mike O'Neal, a representative of Walmart, requested the Senate Transportation Committee to approve a bill preventing city and county governments from adopting ordinances forbidding operation of autonomous vehicles. ( (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Mike O’Neal, a representative of Walmart, requested the Senate Transportation Committee to approve a bill preventing city and county governments from adopting ordinances forbidding operation of autonomous vehicles. ( (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — Retail giant Walmart and autonomous vehicle developer Gatik requested Tuesday passage of a bill legalizing use in Kansas of driverless vehicles on fixed business-to-business routes and preempting cities or counties from establishing roadblocks to deployment of self-driving vehicles.

Forty-four states have created a framework for regulating autonomous vehicles, but Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma are among six states without laws permitting operation of these cars and trucks. The bill before the Kansas Senate would create a statewide policy for autonomous vehicles not limited to the two companies.

Mike O’Neal, a former Kansas House speaker representing Walmart, said technological advances in autonomous vehicles, work by Gatik and Walmart on pilot programs in other states and an ongoing national shortage of commercial truck drivers made it logical for the Senate Transportation Committee to consider Senate Bill 379. The committee heard Tuesday from O’Neal and two Gatik employees and scheduled testimony from opponents for Wednesday.

“In today’s environment, particularly, the timing of this is very good because we know we’re having some pretty serious supply-chain issues and companies are having to innovate,” O’Neal said.

Under the Senate bill, cities and counties couldn’t enact ordinances to regulate or prohibit use of autonomous vehicles. The legislation would restrict automated vehicles in Kansas to the “middle mile” of shipping, which refers to movement of goods between fixed points along repeatable routes. The bill wouldn’t allow the automated driving systems on highways unless the vehicle complied with state traffic laws and met federal safety standards.

Owners of autonomous vehicles would be required to maintain insurance and the remote operator would have to possess a commercial driving license. O’Neal said Walmart and Gatik would agree to an amendment requiring an individual, or safety driver, to be in the truck cab during transit for an initial 12 months of operation in Kansas to establish a safety record.

Members of the Senate committee raised questions about reliance on satellites to guide the trucks, issues of vehicle insurance, responsibility for traffic tickets, vehicle response during inclement weather and whether a Kansas pilot program would be useful.

“This is a lot of innovation,” said Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth. “This is new and is something we’re considering, but we have safety concerns as you can imagine.”

Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, requested maps of roads the Walmart trucks operated on and information about where Gatik autonomous components and vehicles were assembled.

Richard Steiner, director of policy and regulation for Gatik, said the company was founded in 2017 and the firm had been collaborating with Walmart since 2019. Gatik medium-duty vehicles have been operating with Walmart in Arkansas and Louisiana. Gatik also has engaged in use of automated vehicles in Texas, California and Ontario, Canada.

“We have achieved a 100% safety record,” Steiner said. “We are excited about the prospect of investing in Kansas — creating jobs, connecting communities with jobs.”

He said the objective was a more efficient method of delivering goods through reliance on autonomous box trucks moving along fixed delivery routes. This middle-mile zone, or short-haul routes, is the safest option for deploying autonomous vehicles for retail shipping, he said.

The Gatik software responds to construction zones, lane closures or vehicle accidents by forcing the vehicle to stop and await the decision of a technician on how to proceed. Walmart’s trucks in Arkansas are electric, but internal combustion engines have been used in Texas. The tentative plan would be to operate electric trucks in Kansas, Steiner said.

Apeksha Kumarat, chief engineer of Gatik, said an advantage of concentrating on the middle mile was a reduction in the volume of data required of an autonomous vehicle.

“There is a very high confidence of how the systems will be performing on these routes,” she said. “Components such as braking and steering and other software components, which are very critical to the operation and safety of the system, are duplicated.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.