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Guidelines set for testing driverless vehicles in Pa.

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Pennsylvania highway officials issued guidelines in July laying out how they will oversee testing of driverless vehicles in lieu of legislative action on the issue.

Starting Aug. 1, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation expects autonomous-car developers that want to test vehicles in Pennsylvania to file a “Notice of Testing” with the department.

That notice will include information about who is testing and driving the cars, the vehicles involved, and where the testing will take place. It should also verify that the testing meets federal and state safety standards.

“We are asking them to provide a lot of information about the operating systems, drivers and safety protocols they have in place,” said PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick. “We want to make sure those who are behind the wheel of these vehicles are as highly-trained as possible.”

Testers must also submit data to PennDOT every six months during testing so that the department can document and measure the impact of the tests.

That data will include approximate miles traveled while testing and the type of roadways and in which counties testing took place. It will also include the number of people involved with the testing, jobs created and facilities constructed, purchased or rented in the state for testing purposes.

“We need to be getting information we can use to make decisions that ensure this moves along as safely as possible,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s our way of ensuring that our presence is felt.”

He said the state doesn’t have a formal record of how actively or exactly where on-road test operations are taking place, but that five autonomous-vehicle developers have filed applications to test in Pennsylvania, and that testing is being done primarily in the Pittsburgh area.

Five entities have applied to test driverless vehicles in Pennsylvania. They are:
  • Aptiv, a technology company based in Dublin, Ireland
  • Argo AI, based in Pittsburgh and working with Ford Motor Co.
  • Aurora Innovation Inc., a California-based startup whose founders include two people with ties to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh
  • Navlab, shorthand for the Carnegie Mellon University Navigation Laboratory
  • Uber, the California-based ride-hailing service

Aurora Innovation Inc., one of those developers, is a California-based self-driving car startup that designs software and hardware for the vehicles.

The Pittsburgh-based Argo AI partners with Ford Motor Co. on its work with autonomous vehicles, while Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab group builds computer-controlled vehicles for automated and assisted driving. Navlab’s recent research also includes work to expand smart infrastructure.

Another applicant, Ireland-based Aptiv, launched a fleet of autonomous vehicles through the Lyft ride-hailing service in Las Vegas in May. Uber has also filed a testing application with the state, but suspended its Pittsburgh testing after one of its autonomous vehicles was involved in a fatal crash in Arizona.

Kirkpatrick said the guidelines and application process are important steps in ensuring that research, development and testing of the technology continues in the state, but in a safe manner. He said it’s hard to say whether the guidelines will prompt more testing.

He said Pennsylvania is leading the nation as far as the innovations being tested and the state government’s response to testing of the new technologies.

In June 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf formed a task force to coordinate industry, academic and government stakeholders. The task force delivered policy recommendations to the General Assembly in November 2016.

At a Pittsburgh summit in April, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards announced 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.

The Pennsylvania Safety Transportation and Research Track (PennSTART), will allow vehicles to reach highway speeds and test 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.

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