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State continues to hash out rules for driverless vehicles

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A rendering from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows the entrance of a proposed testing facility for autonomous vehicles. The facility, whose site has yet to be selected, is slated to open in 2020.
A rendering from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows the entrance of a proposed testing facility for autonomous vehicles. The facility, whose site has yet to be selected, is slated to open in 2020. - (Photo / )

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently outlined a plan to establish stepped-up oversight of highly automated vehicles without forfeiting Pennsylvania's role in the development and testing of the new technology.

Highly automated vehicles are expected to make automobile travel safer. But after a driverless car struck and killed a pedestrian in March in Arizona, PennDOT moved to outline a voluntary testing policy during an April summit in Pittsburgh, the state’s second automated vehicle summit. The state had no official policies prior to the summit.

“Given public concerns about safety on Pennsylvania roadways, we must implement interim oversight policies while we await legislative action on our request for permanent authorization,” PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said in a statement.

The voluntary policy asks companies to submit notices of when they plan to test, along with a laundry list of information, including the location of the testing and verification that the vehicles meet federal and state safety standards.

Also announced at the summit: Pennsylvania plans to build a test track and facility for new transportation technologies where the industry can develop the next generation of vehicles and train first responders how to interact with them. A site has not yet been selected.

There, vehicles will be able to reach highway speeds and undergo tests in both rural and urban conditions, as well as in a variety of situations such as work zones, highway ramps, parking lots and toll booths.

The Pennsylvania Safety Transportation and Research Track, PennSTART, as it will be called, is expected to open in 2020. PennDOT and Penn State University expect $4 billion in federal grants over the next decade will fund research into automated vehicles and connected vehicles.

Roger Cohen, PennDOT’s policy and co-chairman of a state task force on driverless vehicles, said the technology promises great advances in both safety and mobility. The task force was created in June 2016 and includes representatives from government, business, law enforcement and higher education.

He cited statistics that 94 percent of roadway fatalities are due to human error and that most safety engineers believe highly automated vehicles can significantly cut that number.

“Just from an economical and financial standpoint of chronic and acute care for those seriously injured, lost productivity and property damage, you’d have hundreds of billions of dollars each year that could be put to better use for education, health care and improved public services,” he said.

Highly automated vehicles could also help save the lives of PennDOT workers who labor in the path of high-speed vehicles on the state’s highways. Legislation proposed by State Rep. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland County) to permit them in work zones passed the state House in March and is moving to the state Senate.

Cohen said the new technology also carries the potential for congestion relief and greater use of existing infrastructure to move people and goods. Of course, issues such as the privacy of data collected by the vehicles remain to be sorted out, as do more of the ground rules for testing. Pittsburgh has emerged as a center of research into driverless vehicles, with both Ford and Uber having tested vehicles in the city.

“We have this great intellectual capital and centers of world-class research and development,” he said. “We are hoping for legislation that would authorize a wider scope of testing because the technology needs to be tested in order to advance.”

A proposed testing facility for autonomous vehicles would include a roundabout, seen here in a rendering from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
A proposed testing facility for autonomous vehicles would include a roundabout, seen here in a rendering from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. - ()

In addition to asking where testing is taking place, the state’s new voluntary policy also asks for proof of insurance, a list of vehicles involved in the testing and proof of a training program for drivers and operators. The policy also calls for a stop to testing if a vehicle’s hardware or software is knowingly shared with a vehicle that is part of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Albert Sarvis, assistant professor of geospatial technology at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, teaches the computer mapping skills involved in operating autonomous vehicles. “It’s a combination of GPS, remote sensing, aerial photos, satellite information and geographic information,” he said.

He said few schools are teaching such skills and he anticipates his students will quickly be snatched up by industry recruiters. “The need is immense,” he said.

He envisions one day people will be able to use their highly-automated vehicles to produce income by sending them out to pick up people and transport goods while they sleep rather than leaving the car sitting in the driveway or garage.

“It can pay for itself,” he said. “There’s no reason it has to sit there idle three-quarters of the day. That alone is a revolutionary idea.”

Steve Deck, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which works with Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties, got involved in the highly automated vehicle task force earlier this year and attended the recent summit in Pittsburgh.

“Our role is to understand what this technology means and see if there are infrastructure needs,” he said.

Cars with lane departure devices, for instance, function by seeing white lane lines, so there may be quality requirements for those lines to optimize the cars’ safety features. He said, “That could be something that we are responsible for making sure happens.”

Deck said educating the public about the technology will also be important as development of the technology progresses.

“Some people will embrace this and others will be terrified of it,” he said. “It will be our role to do outreach and educate people.”

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