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Editorial: Don’t let laws, regulations write themselves

Cars and trucks may eventually drive on their own. Laws and regulations, however, need a human touch. That’s why we should be paying close attention as state and federal officials rev up efforts to lay down rules for autonomous vehicles.

The technology certainly carries risks, but also holds great promise, as staff reporter Roger DuPuis outlines in a story in this week’s issue of the Central Penn Business Journal.

Self-driving cars could cut down on accidents and pollution, and improve quality of life for people who otherwise might have trouble getting around. The latter could prove especially helpful in rural Pennsylvania, where public transportation is spotty, at best.

Commercial fleet operators could derive similar benefits. Drivers will worry about losing their jobs. But we doubt companies will want to ship valuable goods long distances without some kind of human accompaniment, if only to keep watch and deter crime. Unattended trucks could make easy targets for thieves and hackers.

The development of the technology, meanwhile, could deliver a boost to Pennsylvania’s economy. The state already is home to some leading researchers in self-driving vehicles, most notably the team at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s likely no accident that Uber chose Pittsburgh to roll out a small fleet of its autonomous cars.

The challenge for lawmakers and regulators is clear. They must preserve public safety without stifling innovation and the new jobs it could bring.

Officials need to follow a flexible approach, one that keeps us safe but that accommodates unforeseen advances. Technology evolves quickly, especially in a space as complex as self-driving vehicles. The challenge takes on a whole new meaning when you have to worry not just about vehicles sharing the road around you but also about malicious hackers in other countries.

We understand that state and federal officials face an agenda full of items screaming for attention. But among their highest priorities should be the future of transportation, a critical sector that affects us all, every day. The last thing we need is for leaders to put the process on autopilot.

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