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Pennsylvania Sets Stage for Increased AV Oversight

The state has issued a new set of voluntary guidelines, with the expectation that the Legislature will formalize AV policies.

The commonwealth of Pennsylvania has drafted guidelines for autonomous vehicle testing, but it’s unclear whether car manufacturers will comply. Without legislative action, there’s still no requirement beyond having a licensed driver behind the wheel of a self-driving car.

“The law currently is silent on vehicle automation,” said Roger Cohen, senior adviser to the secretary of the Department of Transportation, who is coordinating the state’s direction on autonomous vehicles. “And by its silence, it is permissive as long as the provision is met that there is a licensed driver at the steering wheel and is in control of the vehicle,” he said.

In light of recent AV accidents like the one in Arizona that resulted in the death of a pedestrian, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation drafted a new set of guidelines earlier this month. The guidelines marked an added level of safety oversight the state would like to take.

For now, guidelines such as having testers submit the geographic location of testing, proof of insurance or providing an overview of the operational design of the vehicle are just recommendations, with the expectation that the Legislature will soon take up the issue and formalize these policies through state law.

“We’re going to review those testing policies and update them. And we’re going to call all the testers who are currently doing testing in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, to come together, and we are going to ask them – and we expect them – to pledge voluntarily with the updated polices,” said Cohen.

The Regulations

PennDOT is asking AV testing companies to file a “Notice of Testing,” which would include:

  • Name of the company, address, phone number, email; identify principal point of contact for the testing.
  • Verification attesting that the AVs meet all federal and state safety standards and meet the policies adopted by PennDOT.
  • Proof of a driver/operator training program. (PennDOT strongly recommends clean driving records for HAV (highly automated vehicle) operators).
  • Certification that all drivers have met/passed program requirements.
  • Name of approved “drivers,” with valid DL (driver's license) numbers.
  • List of vehicles that will be involved in the testing and their VIN (vehicle identification number) and/or plate number.
  • Routes or geographic location for testing.
  • Basic overview of Operational Design Domain (ODD) including constraints. The ODD describes the specific conditions under which a given HAV is intended to operate, including where (such as what roadway types and speeds) and when (under what conditions, such as day/night, weather limits, etc.).
  • Proof of insurance.
  • Immediately halt testing of any HAV that knowingly shares hardware or software with a vehicle that is part of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation.
In the event the Legislature does not take up AV legislation, the guidelines would remain in their current advisory and voluntary state. 

For its part, Uber has been deeply involved in AV testing in Pennsylvania and has said it intends to work closely with PennDOT in developing the updated policies and participate in stakeholder meetings. The ride-sharing company was operating the self-driving car in Arizona that struck and killed a pedestrian in March.

In the wake of the accident, car companies and policymakers are understandably skittish on rolling out AVs, slowing down the process. Prior to the death of the pedestrian, California was set to roll out its permitting process for driverless AV testing in the state on April 2. To date, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has not yet issued any driverless testing permits, said Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the California DMV, in an email. However, two companies have applied for permits to test driverless autonomous vehicles on California roadways. The DMV did not disclose who the two applicants are. 

“Once a permit is issued, that information will be available on the website,” Gonzalez added.  

The Nebraska Legislature recently passed a law authorizing autonomous vehicles. The bill, LB989, is awaiting the governor’s signature. The state is set to join 22 states and the District of Columbia to have enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles. 

When it comes to new AV policies, government should explore how to handle accidents, and open the door to interacting better with the public, said Thom Rickert, vice president and emerging risks specialist for Trident Public Risk Solutions in an interview with Government Technology last month.

“You should expect that something could go wrong. And when it does, what is your protocol for handling it,” he said.

Where Pennsylvania has been a leader, said Cohen, has been in its willingness to engage the public about its concerns related to autonomous vehicles. “I think what we’re doing is building a very strong foundation among public influencers, public officials, collaborations between local leaders, state and the industry. And a forum for airing concerns and issues,” he said.

“There are directions which we don’t know things will take,” added Cohen. “There is the possibility of unintended consequences at various times; there are concerns about environment, about workforce, as well as safety. All of these are things we’re trying to engage our leadership of the commonwealth.

“We hope that this process will provide a better understanding of the benefits, as well as the complex questions, and lead the way for a public acceptance for a sound, balanced policy,” Cohen continued.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.