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Self-driving, zero pollution cars are coming to Utah. Can the state handle it?

LOGAN, Utah — The Ford Fusion drove forward on the track and then a switch was flipped. The driver took his hands off the steering wheel and the car turned, on its own.

Using a camera mounted on the roof that fed into a laptop in the passenger seat, the car followed a quarter-mile track staying perfectly within the lane completing a series of loops. In the back seat, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, smiled as he took it in.

“For so long, we’ve been saying, ‘This is coming, it’s in the future, it’s going to be decades.’ This is happening right now!” he told FOX 13.

Members of the Utah State Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee toured Utah State University’s Center for Sustainable Electrified Transportation on Thursday, getting a first-hand look at autonomous vehicles, new batteries that hold more juice and zero pollution buses that charge themselves as they move.

“This is an exciting time,” said Regan Zane, the director of the USU testing facility. “There really is no facility like it in the U.S. The ability to look at this intersection between autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, smart mobility concepts.”

Lawmakers piled into a 20-seat bus that generates no pollution. It charges itself wirelessly as it moves over a series of charging tracks embedded in the road. The bus made no noise as the driver gunned the engine with a quick acceleration to show it was not a slow moving vehicle.

For the committee, they’re both welcoming and bracing for a future of self-driving cars. They see advantages of zero pollution buses in a state where air pollution is a constant concern. But there’s also concerns about accidents, liability and easing people’s concerns about autonomous vehicles.

“We don’t want SkyNet,” joked Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, referring to the killer artificial intelligence in the “Terminator” movies. “Nobody wants that, but we do want our technology to work for us.”

Already, autonomous vehicles are being used in agricultural and mining operations in Utah and around the world. Testing is under way for semis delivering products across state lines as well as consumer-grade cars. By 2035, estimates are that 21 million self-driving cars will have been purchased. Zane predicted sooner than that.

“It’s a concern and an opportunity,” he said.

Rep. Spendlove said the Utah State Legislature is largely supportive of such emerging technologies, noting that USU is one of the premier research schools for it. But he said regulation will likely be necessary for autonomous vehicles.

“States have a role in regulating this kind of technology and we want to make sure as lawmakers, as policy makers are considering these issues, they do so with an understanding of what the technology is,” he said.

Implementing some of these emerging technologies could also be expensive. For example, putting in wireless charging tracks in roads could double the cost of a transportation project. But stakeholders in infrastructure development are intrigued. Joining lawmakers on Thursday’s tour were Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras and Utah Transit Authority CEO Jerry Benson.

“Upfront there’s going to be a lot of costs,” Rep. Kwan said. “But there can be public and private partnerships, absolutely. I think there’s going to be motivation to do this.”