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Aldermen air concerns about driverless vehicles

The Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event last year in San Francisco. | AP Photo

Chicago aldermen on Monday threw up a giant caution flag about driverless vehicles, amid concern the technology would be a “job-killer” that endangers motorcyclists and pedestrians and becomes a target for terrorists and hackers.

One year after proposing that autonomous vehicles be banned from the streets of Chicago, the City Council’s Finance and Transportation Committees held a hearing, but took no vote.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) opened the hearing by playing a clip from the movie “Back to the Future” — but mistakenly called it, “Into the Future.”

Burke then complained aloud about a bill awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature that would pre-empt Chicago and other home-rule units from banning autonomous vehicles.

“In all of the [48] years that I’ve been here, the city’s position has always been to resist to the last breath any kind of a bill that would pre-empt the city of Chicago from doing anything under our home-rule authority,” Burke said.

Burke then shifted to the heart of the issue: his concern that the self-driving vehicles “safely function in all kinds of traffic, around schools and playgrounds and be able to confront unexpected road hazards immediately.”

“Let’s say a child is playing soccer or basketball in a park and then loses control of the ball and it rolls out into the street. … Would the [driverless] vehicle recognize the presence of the ball or toy and promptly brake?” he said.

“Roadside construction workers, crews and emergency responders are equally vulnerable. And there are many other potentially dangerous scenarios that demand answers.”

Burke pointed to a recent test that showed that driverless test vehicles logged 635,000 miles, but human test drivers were “forced to intercede 124 times due to unexpected technology failures.”

“Would the software be able to recognize a stop sign or directional indicator if that sign or that directional indicator was altered or vandalized in some way?” Burke said.

“Malicious trickery, vandalism and the more deadly threat of driverless cars falling into the hands of terrorists that could crash it into a crowded urban center, a building, an outdoor market or a festival raises serious concerns. Do we not experience that issue now around the world?”

Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) said his overriding concern was that self-driving cars would be a “job-killer” that cuts across a host of industries.

“All CTA vehicles will be autonomous. … There’s more jobs being lost. Then, we look at Uber and Lyft, who say they employ 20,000-to-30,000 people here in Chicago. Those people will all be laid off…in communities that need to be employed. They will hurt the same communities they say they’re here to help,” Beale said.

“If we have autonomous cars now delivering your packages, FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service will lose jobs. … I don’t want anybody to think that I am against technology, which I am not. I am for technology. But I am also pro-jobs and I think this will be a job-killer in this country.”

Chan D. Lieu, a spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, urged aldermen not to stand in the way of of technology with “great potential to make the roads safer and more accessible,” particularly for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

The industry group is bankrolled by five companies with a vested interest in the technology, including Uber, Lyft, the Ford Motor Co. and the Mobile Car Group.

“Since an estimated 94 percent of all crashes are the result of driver error, fully automated vehicles may reduce traffic fatality because they remove human error from the driving process entirely,” Lieu said.

“Humans generally aren’t very good at driving — whether they’re speeding, driving drunk, distracted, playing with the phone, eating a cheeseburger, or [affected by] driving fatigue.”

Michael Reever, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, also testified against a Chicago ban he called “short-sighted and bad for Chicago’s economic future.”

“Chicago has always been a transportation innovator. We should not reject the future of transportation….If we do, some other city will reap the rewards Chicago failed to accept,” Reever said.

The substitute ordinance championed by Burke and Beale would ban self-driving vehicles on Chicago streets unless they are part of a testing program rigidly regulated by the City Council.

Manufacturer testing permits would cost $500-per-vehicle and be valid for one-year. They would be issued only to companies with $5 million in liability insurance. Those companies also would be required to use vehicles that allow drivers to be in “immediate physical control” or to “actively monitor” vehicle operations and take control if needed.