“Incredible. Absolutely amazing.”
That was the verdict of Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse late last month after he experienced the sensation during a one-mile trip around the State Capitol area in a demonstration vehicle using technology developed at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.
But what will the advance of autonomous vehicles mean for lawmakers, drivers, fleet owners and insurance companies?
In many ways, the jury is still out. Still, a road map of sorts is beginning to take shape. Here’s what you need to know.
Much time, energy and money have been invested in bringing autonomous technology just to the current testing stage.
Ford and Tesla are two of the big names working in the manufacturing sector, while Uber in August introduced a small fleet of self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh — so far they’re all Fords.
Carnegie Mellon researchers in Pittsburgh have been working on the technology for more than 30 years. The Cadillac SRX that visited Harrisburg is actually the university’s 14th-generation vehicle. Unlike earlier versions, which carried obvious sensor equipment, the Cadillac integrates sensors into its body. But with a human still required to sit behind the wheel and take over when necessary, why bother?
State Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards stressed that PennDOT sees in the technology the potential to reduce fatalities and injuries due to vehicle crashes, 95 percent of which are avoidable, she said.
In 2015, 1,200 people died in vehicle crashes in Pennsylvania, PennDOT statistics show.
Richards said the technology could help reduce the number of accidents involving people whose faculties have diminished due to age, while preserving and improving their mobility. PennDOT officials also say the technology can cut energy consumption, lower emissions, improve travel times, and enhance mobility for people with disabilities.
But achieving those goals will put stress on lawmakers to understand and keep pace with the technology.
“The self-driving car raises more possibilities and more questions than perhaps any other transportation innovation under present discussion,” states the introduction to autonomous vehicle guidelines developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But while the technology is advancing rapidly, commercial availability is still a few years off, with automakers expecting to release it in the 2020s. As several officials said, it’s initially expected to be available as an option rather than standard, and probably at first in luxury vehicles.
What we may see earlier, according to PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick and PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Driver and Vehicles Services Kurt Myers, is use of autonomous technology in commercial fleet vehicles. Tests on commercial uses are already underway in Europe and other places, and Myers said they offer the possibility for saving time and fuel through the use of “platooning,” linking multiple vehicles together under one control system, not unlike a train. That possibility is acknowledged in legislation introduced in the state Senate, Senate Bill 1268.
While widespread use may be a few years off, the insurance industry knows it will have to brace for widespread changes as the technology matures.
“Auto is the largest line of insurance. If claims go down due to driverless cars, it could have a huge impact on premiums,” said Katie Gouldner, a spokesperson for Millers Mutual Group in Harrisburg.
Lower premiums would be good news for businesses. But it could mean less money for insurers to invest, she added.
“A significant amount of an insurance company’s net worth and their income is comprised of their investments,” she said. “The investment returns help keep premiums lower.”
But because carriers initially won’t have data on which to price new policies, there could be over- or underpricing at first.
Eventually enough data will develop for appropriate pricing; “however, as in any new market or with any change in an existing market, there will likely be disruption and fallout for some insurance companies,” Gouldner added.
“Property and casualty insurance is a very competitive and resilient market and, just as all competitive markets tend to do, the law of supply and demand finds its balance,” she said.
“So, while this technological marvel of driverless cars plays out, you will see the insurance industry adjust and provide a stable market just as the industry did when the first cars with drivers came on the scene over 100 years ago.”
Autonomy actually means vehicles are more connected to the grid than their ordinary counterparts.
Given a destination, the vehicle automatically generates a route that factors in speed limits, traffic lights, stop signs and lane changes, among other information.
But that process requires communicating with multiple external systems, including traffic lights.
Papenfuse admitted it initially felt strange seeing a steering wheel move on its own for the first time, but the wheel was not unattended. In the driver’s seat sat Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Rajkumar was able to switch the Cadillac SUV into manual operation when needed — as he did, briefly, when the car encountered an unexpected construction crew, Papenfuse said. But also at his disposal was a large, red emergency stop button, standing out like a sore thumb on the center console, just below an electronic display showing the route ahead. The display highlights crosswalks, pedestrians and other objects in the car’s path.
The vehicle’s combination of tools worked as they were supposed to when jaywalkers crossed in front of the vehicle during Papenfuse’s ride, bringing the SUV to a stop at a safe distance.
For PennDOT’s Richards, riding in autonomous vehicles already is old hat. The secretary, who accompanied a CPBJ reporter on a ride around the Capitol, first rode in the Cadillac three months ago during demonstrations in Pittsburgh.
“It really is like riding a bicycle,” she said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, last month produced a 116-page document setting out guidelines for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles, including a 15-point safety assessment for the vehicles’ safe design and development.
The document also sets out what it calls a “model state policy.” The agency suggests the model could help states “create a consistent, unified national framework” for regulation of self-driving vehicles, potentially avoiding a patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations across the U.S.
Since 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 34 states and D.C. have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles. So far, only eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws, while Arizona has an executive order pertaining to the technology.
Dozens of states have proposed legislation, though some of those bills already have failed.
What about Pa.?
In Pennsylvania a task force made up of state, federal and private-sector officials has been meeting since spring to help regulators and lawmakers draft state policies for autonomous vehicles — and to keep them up-to-date once passed.
On the table already is Senate Bill 1268, which would set parameters for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. It does not address widespread public use, which would come later.
Several key provisions include:
• A licensed driver would need to be sitting behind the wheel and able to take control — manually or remotely — in the event of an emergency or malfunction.
• The means of taking control must be “easily accessible to the operator.”
• The owners would be required to sign a contract with PennDOT for all testing; if taking place on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that agency would need to be party to the contract.
• The owners would need $5 million worth of insurance.
State versus federal
Senate Bill 1268 also indicates that an autonomous vehicle may not be registered in Pennsylvania unless it meets federal and state laws — and for the most part, it appears that the bill is in line with federal policy.
However, the state bill appears to conflict with federal guidelines in a few areas, notably when it comes to reporting accidents.
As written, Senate Bill 1268 mandates that testers notify the state of any accidents involving autonomous vehicles, and any failure of the autonomous technology that required a driver to take control.
The federal policy, meanwhile, stopped short of a reporting mandate, suggesting NHTSA “will request that manufacturers and other entities voluntarily provide reports,” though it left open the possibility of requiring reports in the future.
On the other hand, NHTSA outlines the general division of responsibilities between federal and state authorities, and they’re broadly similar to how the system already treats motor vehicle policies.
NHTSA responsibilities include:
• Setting federal safety standards for new vehicles and enforcing compliance.
• Investigating and managing nationwide the recall and remedy of noncompliance and safety-related defects.
• Communicating with and educating the public about safety issues.
• Issuing guidance for vehicle and equipment manufacturers to follow.
States’ responsibilities include:
• Licensing (human) drivers and registering motor vehicles.
• Enacting and enforcing traffic laws and regulations.
• Conducting optional safety inspections.
• Regulating motor vehicle insurance and liability.