The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC), and Pennsylvania universities have formed the Smart Belt Coalition (“Coalition”) to work with transportation agencies and universities in Ohio and Michigan that will combine their ongoing research in the area of self-driving vehicles.
The Coalition will work on: connected and automated applications in work zones; testing commercial freight opportunities, such as wirelessly connecting several tractor-trailers operated by one human driver; and managing traffic and vehicle incidents to provide better information for emergency responders and other agencies. The Coalition intends to create guidelines and opportunities for private-sector testers.
Uber, a technology company that enables private taxis via smartphone technology, has been testing self-driving vehicles in the Pittsburgh area. Uber is working with Carnegie Mellon University in developing smart technology to allow vehicles to communicate with each other on the road.
Pennsylvania is considered to be a great testing area for autonomous vehicles, due to its changing weather, variety of roads and road conditions, bridges, and hilly terrain. Accordingly, Uber began testing its autonomous vehicles in September 2016 in downtown Pittsburgh as well as in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The vehicles have an emergency (human) driver sitting in the driver’s seat and an engineer online, to override the automated system in case of a complication. Uber has partnered with Volvo Cars, which delivered the specially modified cars already in use in the Pittsburgh fleet, to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready in 2021.
In related news, in February, Pennsylvania lawmakers proposed SB 427, a 26-page set of rules and regulations on the testing of autonomous vehicles. The bill would require a $200 application per vehicle permit, and an identification sticker from PennDOT to be placed on both sides of the vehicle. In addition, the bill requires PennDOT to audit companies for compliance with the new regulations.
Companies testing in the state would have to report crashes, submit a reinstatement report of the automated vehicle after a crash if the vehicle is returning to service, and report cyberattacks, even if unsuccessful. The bill also allows “platooning,” a process in which multiple automated vehicles are wirelessly connected to a lead vehicle, but only on selected trafficways. In addition, a certified test operator must be in each platooned vehicle no matter its level.
Some representatives from the industry argue that because the technology is so close to actual development, SB 427 would likely be outdated the moment it is passed. Additionally, they criticized the regulatory hurdles and the cumbersome pre-approval process, and argued for a more flexible bill with fewer restrictions.
On the other hand, some lawmakers have posed questions about who or what would be held responsible in the event of a crash and what would happen to state driver’s license fees and traffic fine revenue that flows to state and local government agencies in a world of autonomous vehicles. SB 427 is still only in its proposal stage, and many changes can still occur.
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