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Driverless vehicles could hit Ky. highways this summer under bill moving in the state House

James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, (left) steps outside the House chamber Wednesday so he could co-sponsor a bill by Republican Rep. Josh Bray, of Mount Vernon.
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Republican Rep. James Tipton, of Taylorsville, (left) steps outside the House chamber Wednesday so he could co-sponsor a bill by Republican Rep. Josh Bray, of Mount Vernon (right).

The state House is again attempting to allow autonomous vehicles on Kentucky highways after the legislation was thwarted by Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto last year. The legislation passed 61-31, with several Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

Driverless trucks, commercial vehicles and cars could be passing Kentuckians on the highway later this summer under a bill that passed the Kentucky House of Representatives Thursday.

House Bill 7 would allow vehicles that meet federal standards to drive fully autonomously across the state, putting Kentucky in line with dozens of other states that have also approved of driverless vehicles, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Josh Bray, a Republican from Mount Vernon said.

“When we look at all of the data across all of the industries, whether that's from the federal government, whether that's from private studies, we see this is essentially an economic growth opportunity,” Bray said.

The only limitation in the bill, aside from federal safety standards, is on autonomous semi-trucks over 62,000 lbs, which will still require a human on-board until after July 2026, although Bray said he felt such provision was unnecessary.

That is one of the only major differences between this measure and one that successfully passed the General Assembly in 2023, but was vetoed by Gov. Andy Beshear. The legislature did not choose to override the bill at the time.

Bray said he believes autonomous vehicles are safer than human drivers and that Kentucky would fall far behind if they didn’t move now.

“It's important, within Kentucky, that we try to be at the forefront of innovation, and it's important that we think long-term about logistics and how we're going to move freight as economic growth expands, and we have fewer workers to do it,” Bray said.

While primarily Democrats spoke against the bill Thursday, 13 Republicans also voted against it. Opponents said they were concerned the driverless vehicles have not been proven safe enough and would endanger thousands of truck driving jobs in the state.

“I’d like us to remember that autonomous vehicles impact 55,000 truck drivers and their jobs in Kentucky, and it would absolutely devastate my community,” said Rep. Rachel Roarx, a Louisville Democrat. “My community is very fearful about what moving too fast on this subject could mean.”

A survey of about 500 Kentucky voters, which was commissioned by the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, a union organization, found that 73% of Kentuckians would be uncomfortable sharing the road with “driverless small, compact cars,” with that percentage increasing with delivery trucks and semis.

Democrats attempted to bring several floor amendments, but all were summarily rejected. One would have prohibited the use of fully automated school buses. There are currently no autonomous school buses in operation in the United States, but Democratic Rep. Adrielle Camuel of Lexington urged the legislature to be proactive.

“Innovation should not come at the expense of public safety, especially when we use our kids as potential guinea pigs to achieve that innovation,” Camuel said. “It is incumbent on us to take action to protect our kids from what’s coming down the pike in the future.”

In an attempt to protect jobs and ease into an autonomous vehicle transition, Democratic Rep. Tackett Laferty from Martin moved to require that all commercial vehicles have a driver on-board.

“We share our narrow two lane roadways with loaded coal trucks. While I’m grateful that this bill puts a driver behind these vehicles for up to two years, it’s simply not enough,” Tackett Laferty said. “I’m not sure why we’ve arbitrarily chosen two years.”

Her bid too failed.

A 2023 study showed that the country is facing a truck driver shortage of as many as 80,000 drivers. Bray said that the driverless vehicle industry would create jobs, and encourage Kentuckians to adapt to the change.

It is unclear how truck drivers and others whose jobs could be lost in the transition would benefit from new high-paying jobs in the autonomous vehicle industry, or, if those jobs would be concentrated in Kentucky.

Under the bill, autonomous vehicle owners would be required to submit a road safety plan to Kentucky State Police including contact information for whenever the vehicle is in operation, and details on how the vehicle can be towed if necessary.

Now that the bill has successfully passed a House vote, it will move to the Senate for consideration.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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