The logistics are still unclear, but the testing of unmanned vehicles along South Dakota roads may be closer than most think.
The Central North American Trade Corridor Association made headlines last week when it discussed plans to test automated vehicles in the central part of the country within the next five years. Two possible test routes announced by the group were between Minot and Bismarck, within North Dakota, or across state lines between Bismarck, N.D., and Pierre.
Marlo Anderson, an interim board member for the association heading up the work on autonomous vehicles, said the route between Bismarck and Pierre has several attractive qualities for this type of testing.
U.S. Highway 83, which runs between the two cities, is already part of a central land-based trade corridor. Plus, the route connects the capitals of two states that have good working and political relationship. Also, ideal for testing purpose, it’s an area of relatively low traffic.
“It’s one of those few times when a rural setting is favorable for this kind of work,” he said.
Anderson said he hopes a test corridor will become a reality in the next three to five years. If that does happen, then it could have a domino effect, leading to further testing in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, he said.
There shouldn’t be much pushback on the idea, he said, except from probably the long-haul trucking industry. However, there is already a shortage of long-haul drivers and BMW has been working on an automated flatbed truck, he said.
Anderson said he knows Audi and BMW are building self-driving vehicles and is willing to bet almost all manufacturers are looking into the idea.
“The technology is here. Autonomous vehicles are here now and ready to go,” he said.
Before the idea can come to fruition it will take appearing before the legislatures of both states and working closely with the local departments of transportation to educate state leaders on the issue, Anderson said.
South Dakota Secretary of Transportation Darin Bergquist said both he personally and the department don’t know enough about the technology yet to have a position on the proposed testing route. It’s not an area the DOT has been looking into, he said.
However, he said the issue will need to be studied if the idea moves forward to make sure state drivers are not put in dangerous situations.
“Obviously, safety is going to be our No. 1 priority,” he said.
State Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, is one legislator who does not need to be convinced of the benefits of the new technology. With such features as assisted braking, blind spot warning systems and parking assistance being incorporated into newer cars, self-driving vehicles are basically here, he said.
“I think autonomous vehicles are a lot closer to reality than we think,” Lederman said.
This past legislation session he introduced Senate Bill 139, which outlined terminology and guidelines for the testing of autonomous vehicles on state roads. The bill was tabled while still in committee.
Lederman said he introduced the bill not to stymie development of these vehicles, but to pave the way for their introduction. As soon as government approves their implementation, businesses will begin to churn out autonomous vehicles, he said.
Several states, such as California and Nevada, have already approved such testing and have automated vehicles on the road that have gone thousands of miles without a single accident, Lederman said.
During the drafting of his legislation he spoke with the South Dakota departments of revenue, motor vehicles and public safety, so the executive branch of state government is up to speed on the topic, he said.
Eventually the bill will be reintroduced, he said, after he has made some modifications – including potentially writing in tax incentives for companies who want to develop these types of vehicles.