Politics

As self-driving cars become a reality in other parts of the country, state lawmakers are considering how to regulate the vehicles in Kentucky.

During a legislative hearing Thursday about automated driving, experts said the technology can increase safety and road capacity while reducing traffic congestion and freight costs.

But safety liability concerns remain for some, like Sen. C.B. Embry, a Republican from Morgantown.

“I don’t know how these vehicles would respond in instant problems like a deer in front of the car, black ice, a mud slide, rock slide, a passenger having a heart attack or stroke, needing immediate attention,” Embry said during a legislative hearing about the technology.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states have passed legislation dealing with the testing and regulation of self-driving cars.

The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration last year issued guidelines for how the vehicles should perform and how states should regulate them.

Jason Siwula, a highway engineer with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said that the technology can make highways safer and more efficient by taking the human element out of driving.

“There’s a lot of things that we do because of the human element: You keep extra space in between cars, vehicles cut each other off sometimes and cause inefficiencies,” Siwula said.

“So reduced crashes from increased safety ultimately increases capacity as well. Because everybody has been stuck behind a crash scene at one time or another.”

Nevada was the first state to pass legislation dealing with autonomous cars. In 2011, the state passed laws requiring a license to operate the vehicles and prohibiting the use of cell phones while operating.

This year, Nevada passed a law allowing autonomous truck driving and taxi services through a method called “platooning,” in which a group of vehicles travel closely together at a high speed.

Lawmakers also discussed how electric and fuel efficient vehicles affect the state’s ability to reap revenue from the gas tax.

Low gas prices in recent years and fuel efficient vehicles have led to a sharp decline in receipts from the fuel tax, which fund state highway maintenance and construction.

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Republican from Lebanon, said the state will eventually have to look at charging electric car operators extra to use Kentucky roads.

“One of these days if we start looking at electric vehicles, it’d be very easy to put a user fee on those and be able to calculate what that would be,” Higdon said.

In 2015, the legislature set a “floor” to the fuel tax rate, meaning it can’t go below 26 cents per gallon, even if gas prices continue to drop and the tax can’t increase or decrease more than 10 percent in a year.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.