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Illinois Launches Testing Program For Autonomous Vehicles

Matt McAnarney
Ryan Denham
Matt McAnarney, IDOT’s project manager for connected and automated vehicles, during a recent interview in Springfield.";

Editor’s note: This story is part of a special episode of GLT’s Sound Ideas focused entirely on autonomous driving. It aired Nov. 21. Read more stories in the series.

All over the country cities and states are raising their hands to be part of the autonomous driving revolution. For a long time, Illinois wasn’t one of them.

"We're in the first inning right now, but the game has started. You can either be a fan on the sidelines or you can be in the ballgame."

That changed last month when the Illinois Department of Transportation launched its Autonomous Illinois initiative. It will establish the state’s first testing program for autonomous vehicles (AVs) and try to pair up the communities, businesses, and state agencies most interested in the emerging self-driving technology.

“We do want to be a leader in this. We hold a natural position where should be a leader, especially as it relates to freight movement,” said Matt McAnarney, IDOT’s project manager for connected and automated vehicles. “We saw the industry moving very quickly. I like to say we’re in the first inning right now, but the game has started. You can either be a fan on the sidelines or you can be in the ballgame.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner created the Autonomous Initiative on Oct. 25 through executive order. Among other things, it calls for: 

  • IDOT will create a registration system for those companies or other organizations looking to conduct pilots or tests.
  • IDOT will help identify communities interested in hosting testing and connect them with companies or other groups.
  • State agencies will study other related issues, including implications for insurance companies (like State Farm) and worker retraining that may someday be required if AVs, for example, disrupt the ride-sharing industry. 

As of last summer, 37 states and the District of Columbia had enacted legislation or issued executive orders relating to AVs, according to a new State Farm-funded study by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Eleven states have authorized full deployment, with the rest simply authorizing a study or testing programs.

Illinois’ state law currently allows for so-called Level 3 autonomous driving, also called conditional automation. It requires a licensed driver behind the wheel who would serve as a fallback if the car encounters something it cannot handle alone. Advances into Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy (where a driver isn’t needed at all) would require changes to state law, said McAnarney.

He said IDOT’s interest in AVs is rooted in safety—the belief that a future dominated by self-driving cars will have far fewer traffic accidents.

“We’ve seen the safety numbers in Illinois trending in the wrong direction, where we’ve topped 1,000 fatalities on the road for two years now, (and we're) trending in that direction again this year,” McAnarney said. “We think through proper development, these systems will eventually make our roads a whole lot safer than they are today."

AV testing itself has safety implications. Uber pressed pause on its AV research after one of its vehicles was involved in the first known fatality involving a pedestrian and an autonomous car earlier this year in Arizona.

McAnarney said Illinois’ program was shaped in part by “good and bad lessons” learned during similar efforts in other states. Chief among them is that Illinois’ approach is “tech neutral,” meaning it won’t codify a preference for a certain underlying AV technology. 

“There are no winners and losers being chosen,” McAnarney said. “There was some legislation that was introduced that would’ve essentially boxed out some of the bigger players, some of your tech companies. We thought it was important to have them at the table and able to participate. So that was definitely a lesson we wanted to put into place.”

(The legislation he referenced was the original language of HB 2747. The bill was eventually amended to be more tech neutral.) 

IDOT will, however, work with a many different companies at once. That includes Rivian, the startup that will make its electric vehicles at the former Mitsubishi Motors plant in Normal. Its first vehicles will have Level 3 autonomous capability.

“We’ve talked to Rivian. We’ve talked to a lot of Illinois-based companies. We’re excited about Rivian and what their future holds,” McAnarney said. “They’re a part of the Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association, who we’ve worked with as well. We’ve had great conversations with them. We’re looking to provide a level playing field for everybody. Rivian included.” 

Public universities will also play a role in Autonomous Illinois, McAnarney said. IDOT is exploring the creation of a test track in the Rantoul area, in partnership with the University of Illinois system and Northwestern University, he said. Already in Rantoul is UIUC’s Advanced Transportation Research and Engineering Laboratory. 

Also involved are six state agencies, including the State Police and the Department of Insurance. An interagency working group was formed two years ago, McAnarney said. The testing program is a good first step until further action is needed by the General Assembly, he said. 

“It’s going to take some extraordinary work between a lot of different groups, and our testing program is a starting point for that,” McAnarney said.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.