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Editorial: Wrong-way plan for driverless cars

California Gov. Edmund G Brown Jr., front left, rides in a driverless car to a bill signing at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

If two Chicago aldermen had their way, Chicago, which has a long history as a leader in transportation, would become the Luddite on the Lake.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beal (9th) have introduced a short-sighted ordinance that would ban driverless vehicles, defined as those that have “the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.” The proposed ordinance includes a fine of $500 for anyone operating an autonomous vehicle.

EDITORIAL

Any time a disruptive new technology comes along, it’s wise to put smart regulations in place that protect the general public. Chicago sure had to do that when trains came along. But those regulations also should nurture the new technology. Or it will move on to other, more future-oriented, towns.

Test self-driving vehicles already are logging miles on the road in other cities and states, including Pittsburgh and California. Planners envision self-driving cars and trucks on the road — safe and sensible — in just a few years. Chicago should be open and ready and welcome the opportunity.

It’s difficult for a city to draw up effective rules of the road early in the development of a new technology. The aim is to be flexible enough to embrace  innovation and foresighted enough to protect the public. Chicago, for example, will want to include regulations minimize or make it impossible for hackers to take control of self-driving vehicles. The federal government sought to thread that needle last week when Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx issued 15-point policy paper as a guideline for autonomous cars.

The promise of self-driving cars is not just the economic benefits from a new industry. The promise — or at least the possibility — is also greater safety on the road. Autonomous cars don’t drive drunk or text behind the wheel. More than 35,000 people died in collisions on the roads in 2015. The National Highway Safety Administration estimates 94 percent of auto accidents in the United States are the result of human error.

It only makes sense to map out where Chicago is going. But let’s not hide the keys to the car.