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Pennsylvania to legislate on autonomous vehicles

autonomous car

The US state of Pennsylvania has decided to be an early adopter of autonomous cars and speed up the process of legislation surrounding the new technology

Citing the future anticipated benefits to travel safety, the environment and mobility, Pennsylvania Department of Technology (PennDOT) Secretary Leslie S. Richards recently joined elected, industry and other transportation officials to mark the state’s continued and progressive steps as a national leader in the safe, innovative development of autonomous and connected vehicle technologies.

“We are always looking at ways to make travel safer, and these new vehicle technologies offer a huge opportunity to not only advance our network, but also reduce human behavior as a factor in crashes,” Richards said. “We’re looking forward to expanding on the innovation that’s already alive and well here in Pittsburgh so companies can test their technologies in our state’s varied seasons and roadway types.” 

Richards spoke at an event today in Pittsburgh before the first meeting of a newly established Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force that will collaboratively develop guidance that PennDOT will use when drafting autonomous vehicle policy. PennDOT is chairing the task force, which is comprised of state, federal and private-industry officials such as the Federal Highway Administration, AAA, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Uber Technologies.

According to Carnegie Mellon University, which hosted the Task Force meeting and demonstrated its autonomous technologies after the event, the university’s faculty and students have been working for more than 30 years to ensure that self-driving cars will be safe, affordable, and ultimately, accepted by the public. The university has made significant contributions to AV technology inventions and has created 14 generations of self-driving vehicles. The university’s latest self-driving car is a 2011 Cadillac SRX that takes ramps, merges onto highways, and cruises at 70 mph by itself.

Also participating in the event were lawmakers who are sponsoring legislation in the state Senate and House that would establish Pennsylvania as a national leader in autonomous vehicle testing.

“I am delighted to see Pittsburgh and CMU taking a leadership role in autonomous vehicles and hope today’s event shows our commitment to supporting this ground breaking research. The work being done at CMU is a source of pride for not only Pittsburgh, but the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Randy Vulakovich. “By working with all of the stake holder groups, I believe SB 1268 will foster innovation while at the same time ensure the safety of motorists on our public roads.”

The legislation would:

  • Provide for controlled automated vehicle testing, not operation;
  • Allow flexibility to adapt to changing technology;
  • Require companies interested in testing to submit an application and provide proof of $5 million in general liability insurance; and
  • Allow support for in-vehicle and remote-operator testing, considered the “Full Self-Driving Automation” level, the fourth and highest level of automation as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Noting that the announcement occurred in Pittsburgh and CMU hosted the Task Force meeting, Sen. Wayne Fontana said, “Pittsburgh being chosen as one of the seven finalists out of nearly 80 cities that applied for the [U.S. Department of Transportation’s] Smart City Challenge is a testament to the innovation happening in the region.

“Pennsylvania as a whole has a lot to offer and my hopes are that the introduction of SB 1268 will help universities and companies that are testing these vehicles of the future feel welcomed in the commonwealth and inspire future generations.”

Various studies and research have pointed to autonomous and connected vehicles as having environmental and travel benefits in addition to reducing human error in driving. Vehicle functions such as maintaining more consistent speeds, communicating with infrastructure or other vehicles, and allowing highway officials to eventually to invest less in engineering solutions related to human behavior (such as rumble strips) are examples of potential benefits of expanding these technologies.

“The concept of autonomous cars is something many of us never thought we’d be discussing in our lifetime,” Sen Jay Costa said. “What’s exciting to me is that right here in Pittsburgh, we’re in the center of where this innovation is happening at places like Google, Uber and most importantly, here at Carnegie Mellow University. Innovation brings growth and will have a lasting impact on our communities. As we move forward, we’re not only testing the concept of autonomous vehicles, we’re growing jobs and driving economic development in our communities.”

At the state level, these steps could quickly bring additional economic opportunities as automotive and technology companies, encouraged by the legislation, could establish themselves in the state.

“Autonomous and connected vehicles will be integrated in the next generation of our transportation system,” stated Sen. John Rafferty, Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “One of the primary reasons for Senate Bill 1268 is to test the incorporation of this advanced technology on our roadways that provides for safety, mobility, innovation and economic development.”

Additionally, in the future, autonomous vehicles could offer more opportunity for independence for the nation’s millions of older or disabled citizens. According to the US Census, by 2050 there will be an estimated 48 million people over the age of 75 in the US.

“Autonomous and connected vehicles offer a promising glimpse into the future of our transportation system,” Sen. John Wozniak said. “I’m proud that Pennsylvania is one of the states leading the development of this cutting edge technology. However, it’s important that the public knows these cars are safe and SB 1268 addresses those concerns while at the same time allowing Pennsylvania to stay competitive in this field for years to come.”

Rep Jim Marshall, House Subcommittee Chairman for Transportation Safety and sponsor of forthcoming autonomous vehicle legislation in the House, added, “With matters of public safety, we must be proactive, not reactive. This important legislation will get Pennsylvania out in front of this new and evolving technology.”

The task force and legislation build on current and past studies, work groups and coalitions in which PennDOT has participated. The department currently has representatives on the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators’ Automated Vehicles Best Practices work group; the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials Connected and Automated Vehicle Technical Working Group; the Vehicle-to-Infrastructure Deployment Coalition; the Connected Vehicle Pooled Fund Study; and the Transportation Research Board’s Technical Activities Council on Vehicle Automation.

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