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Pa. House advances bill allowing driverless work vehicles

A bill allowing the use of autonomous vehicles by certain state agencies passed the Pennsylvania House on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland County), would permit the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to use autonomous vehicles in work zones designated by either entity.

The bill is limited to “highly automated work zone vehicles,” which the legislation defines as either fully self-driving vehicles or those connected by wireless systems for coordinated movement.

According to Roger Cohen, senior adviser to Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Leslie Richards, the technology could enhance safety on hazardous roadside worksites operated by PennDOT.

“Our work zones are our most vulnerable function that PennDOT and our contractor workers are ever exposed in,” said Cohen.

Cohen said driverless technology could replace drivers in what are known as vehicle-mounted attenuators, or VMAs. These vehicles, typically seen in moving PennDOT work zones like those used in landscaping or line painting, are equipped with large, spring-loaded barriers that prevent swerving cars from striking workers.

However, Cohen said, crashes injuring VMA drivers are common.

“Those vehicles get hit on an average of once a month during construction season, and while the drivers in those vehicles technically survive, unfortunately they are often injured,” said Cohen.

Driverless vehicles could minimize that risk by closely following the work site and removing the need for a person to driver the VMA, said Cohen.

Cohen is also the co-chair of the Pennsylvania Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force, a committee of private and public sector representatives first convened in June 2016 by Secretary Richards. In December 2016, the committee issued its policy recommendations for the roll-out of autonomous vehicles in the commonwealth.

The bill passed this week by the House would also allow military vehicles to travel in groups of three while linked by wireless technology. Known as “platooning,” the practice digitally connects multiple vehicles while giving the driver of the lead vehicle control over the acceleration and deceleration of the following vehicles.

The lead driver does not take full control of the vehicles, however, and all three drivers in a platoon would still need to be active under Rothman’s bill.  

The practice increases fuel efficiency for all three vehicles by allowing them to safely follow each other more closely, said Cohen, who compared the practice to drafting in cycling.

“By reducing the following distances, you create a windbreak that reduces the use of fuel resources,” said Cohen.

The bill, known as HB 1958, will now move to the state Senate for consideration.

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