Former Nebraska State Senator: Electric car does the driving, and talking, 
for climate change message around state

Source: By Paul Hammel, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017

LINCOLN — Gotta admit, a certain thrill comes over you when you realize you’re in a car that is driving itself.

It happened the other day while riding with former State Sen. Ken Haar down busy Interstate 80. After setting the cruise control at 65 mph, he pulled his hands off the steering wheel.

“Here’s the neat part … ta-da,” said Haar, of Lincoln.

And with that, the $85,000 Model S Tesla kept on cruising down the Interstate, adjusting the steering wheel every so often to remain in its lane.

“It’s amazing,” said the 71-year-old former legislator. “There’s a saying: If your ‘Tesla smile’ lasts for more than four hours, see a doctor.”

Haar, who was known for his advocacy of wind energy while in the Legislature, is making the rounds of Nebraska these days giving presentations on climate change.

The star of the show is the Tesla, an all-electric car fitted with an auto pilot, eight cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors and forward-looking radar. He offers free rides in the luxury vehicle.

“People remember this,” Haar said. “A dog-and-pony show doesn’t hurt.”

During a test drive on I-80 the other day he gave two flicks of a lever and the auto pilot pinged to life, maintaining the car’s path in its own lane.

“It’s relaxing,” he said.

But what about that huge semitrailer looming in front of us, in the same lane?

Haar calmly explained that the owner of the car — Donald Cox, an adjunct engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — had set the auto-pilot to keep a five-car-length distance behind any vehicle in the same lane.

So that’s what the library-quiet electric car did, slowing to maintain its distance from the semi. It sped back up to 65 when the traffic opened up.

Every minute or so a warning light came on to remind the driver to put his hands on the wheel.

The warning is a way to ensure that the driver doesn’t fall asleep and is ready to take control if needed, Haar said. He put that to the test once, and when he didn’t put his hands on the wheel, the Tesla slowly steered off the road and stopped.

A Tesla timeout for not following the rules.

Since exiting the Legislature because of term limits in 2016, Haar hit the road, giving PowerPoint presentations to gatherings in homes, churches and even Knights of Columbus meetings.

Nebraska needs to plan for climate change, Haar said. Average temperatures will rise by 4 to 5 degrees in the state by the end of the century under the most modest projections from a 2014 University of Nebraska-Lincoln report.

That, Haar said, would leave Nebraska with a climate like southern Oklahoma. Cotton country, not Cornhuskers.

En route to a presentation recently at Fullerton, he said that 95 percent of the 80-mile trip was steered by the car itself.

The car isn’t totally “self driving,” Haar explained. It doesn’t recognize stop signs or stop signals, so you have to take back control of the car from time to time.

Good to know, I was thinking, after he had turned over the wheel — er, controls — to me.

Cox, the Tesla owner, estimated he has allowed 3,000 people to test drive one of his four Teslas over the past couple of years.

“I call him the Tesla Evangelist,” Haar said.

A while back, Cox took a couple of his Teslas — a $110,000 Roadster and another, non-auto-pilot Model S — to the State Capitol and let Statehouse workers, and a lingering reporter, test drive the cars.

It is amazing. When you punch the accelerator on the Model S, it pushes you back in the driver’s seat like an astronaut on takeoff.

“It will go zero to 60 in 4.1 seconds,” Haar said, and it will travel 250 miles per charge of electricity.

Not to rain on our ride, but the state’s highway safety guru, Fred Zwonechek, said what we did was legally questionable. State law requires a driver to have physical control over a vehicle, he said. So, would letting the car steer itself run afoul of that?

As many as 22 states have passed laws allowing testing of self-driving cars, but not Nebraska. A proposal in the State Legislature to allow vehicles with “autonomous technology” that don’t require “active control or monitoring by a human operator” failed to get out of committee this spring.

“It is much more complicated than you think it would be,” Zwonechek said of laws allowing autonomous vehicles. For instance, who’s liable if a self-driving car causes an accident?

He said he thinks that self-driving cars are a long way off — not just because of the need for more research, but also because of the high cost.

Haar isn’t so sure. Projections on acceptance of new technologies such as the cellphone were way too conservative, he said. Once the smartphone was introduced, sales skyrocketed.

“The future is now,” he said.