Legislature sends governor invitation for Kansas to join autonomous vehicle revolution

Kelly may hit brakes after last month’s veto of driverless electric delivery bill

By: and - April 28, 2022 8:16 am
Rep. Richard Proehl, a Parsons Republican, endorsed a bill approved by the House and Senate enabling autonomous cars and trucks to operate on the state's roads. Critics raised questions about public safety and liability insurance related to the driverless vehicles. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Richard Proehl, a Parsons Republican, endorsed a bill approved by the House and Senate enabling autonomous cars and trucks to operate on the state’s roads. Critics raised questions about public safety and liability insurance related to the driverless vehicles. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Legislature jumped on the autonomous vehicle bandwagon by passing a bill that would create a pathway for the state to welcome driverless cars and trucks on roadways.

Gov. Laura Kelly, who will be in the position of traffic cop on Senate Bill 313, raised safety issues about robots in April while vetoing Amazon’s bill designed to enable operation of electric, autonomous delivery devices on sidewalks and streets in Kansas.

The Kansas Chamber, Koch Industries and the Alliance for Automobile Innovation sought to rally lawmakers to the driverless vehicle cause, while the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Kansas Trial Lawyers Association and Working Kansas Alliance took the opposite position.

The bill was approved Wednesday by the House 75-44 and the Senate 23-17, but both totals didn’t suggest there was enough support to defy a Kelly veto.

Rep. Richard Proehl, a Parsons Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said industries from shipping to taxi services were moving toward integration of autonomous vehicles. Failure of Kansas to embrace driverless vehicles will prompt companies invested in the technology to bypass the state, he said.

“The technology is here folks and it’s time for us to be moving along,” Proehl said. “This is a good bill. Kansas is one of just a few states that does not have anything in statute about autonomous vehicles.”

Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Wichita Democrat on the transportation committee, said the Teamsters didn’t budge on a demand the bill require a driver in each of these vehicles whenever moving. The governor is likely to veto the bill, he said, and the GOP-led Legislature could try to override her.

“Bottom line is autonomous vehicles are coming,” Helgerson said. “Is it premature? Possibly. Is this rushed through the House? Clearly. I’ll get in trouble for this, but … are the Teamsters being unreasonable? Yes.”

The original version of this bill was limited to commercial trucks that followed precise routes from a distribution facility to retail outlets. As the legislative session evolved, advocates of autonomous vehicles altered the text to include large trucks, passenger vehicles and transportation network companies. Apparently the vehicles require installation of special navigational stripes on roads, an unknown cost that would be borne by state taxpayers.

Rep. Linda Featherston, D-Overland Park, said her husband’s auto had driverless capabilities that gave her pause.

“That thing has the skills of a teenage driver,” she said.

She said alarms sounded when his vehicle passed through large intersections without precise traffic lines. In addition, she said, the vehicle was confused by graded roads prepared for resurfacing because they no longer had reference markers to guide a vehicle.

Sen. Tom Hawk, a Democrat from Manhattan and owner of a vehicle with driverless technology, said the bill hastily cobbled together by House and Senate members and an assortment of lobbyists didn’t meet his standards for public safety. The bill requires the vehicles to carry a “conventional human driver” for a 12-month introductory phase rather than the 24 months previously contemplated by legislators, he said.

“The assumption that a future Legislature could fix what I see as omissions in this bill before a serious accident takes place is not likely,” Hawk said.

Under the bill, the driverless-capable vehicles would have to demonstrate ability to safely move to the shoulder, stop and activate emergency signals, comply with state and federal traffic safety laws and not exceed 34,000 pounds on tandem axles for two years. Owners of these vehicles would have to inform the Kansas Highway Patrol on how to contact fleet support technicians and inform first responders in event of a collision.

It would authorize operation of driverless vehicle networks to transport people or goods and would include forms of public transportation. These vehicles would be prohibited from carrying hazardous materials until 2025.

Leighton Yates, director of state affairs for the Alliance for Automobile Innovation in Washington, D.C., told legislators vehicles with automated driving systems had the potential to dramatically reduce traffic accidents that annually killed about 38,000 people in the United States.

“For millions of Americans who cannot drive, or do not, including the elderly and many people with disabilities, this technology represents the potential for unprecedented freedom and independence,” he said.

Blake Shuart, a Wichita attorney and member of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association, said the bill was flawed because it could shift financial responsibility for catastrophic traffic injuries or deaths to Kansans by requiring driverless vehicles to carry the minimum amount of bodily injury coverage under Kansas law.

“These liability limits are unreasonably low and have been for many years,” he said, but the legislation would “now extend the problem of under-insured drivers to vehicles with no human driver at all behind the wheel.”

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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.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.