FutureStructure

Experts: Autonomous Vehicles' Safety Worth the Risk

For Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards, allowing testing of self-driving vehicles is “the prudent thing to do.”

by Ed Blazina, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / December 13, 2016
Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards Flickr/Montgomery County Planning Commission

(TNS) — Testing self-driving vehicles on public roads comes with some risk, but the potential benefits — especially in lives saved in traffic accidents — make well-regulated testing worth the effort.

That was the conclusion Monday at separate state and federal forums on proposed policies to oversee the emerging technology. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials held a webinar to raise and answer questions about proposed policies released last week, and federal officials hosted a daylong forum in Arlington, Va., to discuss federal policy recommendations released in September.

In the Pennsylvania forum, Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards said the state is “extremely excited” about the promise of self-driving vehicles, which she called the next safety step after seat belts and air bags. Statistics show human error was involved in 95 percent of the state’s more than 1,200 traffic deaths last year, Ms. Richards said, and there is reason to believe highly automated vehicles can sharply reduce the deaths.

As a result, she considers allowing testing of self-driving vehicles “the prudent thing to do.”

Kirk Myers, co-chairman of the task force that developed the recommendations and PennDOT’s deputy secretary for driver and vehicle services, said the policy recommendations would allow innovation to occur safely.

“We are committed to making sure [safety and innovation] work together,” Mr. Myers said. “The PennDOT scale will always lean to public safety.”

It’s important for developers such as Uber in Pittsburgh to test vehicles on active roadways — with a safety driver available to take over in an emergency — to fully test the technology in all road and weather conditions, Ms. Richards said. The proposed state rules would require testers to obtain permission and meet minimum vehicle standards for testing, record the number of miles and locations where vehicles are tested and report crashes.

The state plans to submit the policies to the Legislature for enactment when lawmakers return in January.

At the federal level, Mark R. Rosekind, chairman of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, cited similar rates of human error in accidents across the country.

The federal guidelines, which include model state policies, show “a government that’s inspired” by the safety potential of self-driving vehicles, as well as the mobility they could provide for people who are elderly or disabled, he said.

But Steve Shladover, program manager for the California-based Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, said there could be unavoidable bumps along the way.

“How do you ensure safety to the public? As far as I know, nobody knows how to do that,” he said. “The notion we can test our way to proving safety is a fallacious one.”

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