PennDOT announces new regulations for testing self-driving vehicles

A self driving car in Pittsburgh. (Megan Harris/ 90.5 WESA)

A self driving car in Pittsburgh. (Megan Harris/ 90.5 WESA)

Pennsylvania will remain an integral player in the development of self-driving vehicles, but ensuring that the roads are safe must be the state’s top priority, said PennDOT secretary Leslie Richards on Monday as she announced interim regulations for the industry.

“We believe that you need to know what are the rules here in Pennsylvania and what are we expecting,” she said. “What do we need in order to again to make sure that this technology matures in a way that helps everybody.”

At this point, however, the rules are voluntary, as PennDOT can only urge companies to adhere to them. The Pennsylvania legislature must write the new regulations into law before they can be enforced. Both the House and Senate have bills to do so. In the meantime, Richards said she’s confident that the industry will work with PennDOT.

“The intent of these policies is to move this technology forward, the intent is not to slow it down or halt it, but to make sure that it moves forward in a very safe manner,” she said.

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PennDOT secretary Leslie Richards announced new interim regulations for autonomous vehicles on Monday, April 9, 2018. (Margaret J. Krauss/ 90.5 WESA)

Richards said the interim regulations had been in the works before last month’s fatal crash in Tempe, Ariz —which involved an Uber vehicle in self-driving mode — but said public concern prompted Monday’s announcement.

“We want to be transparent,” she said. “We want to be sharing with the public how we are moving forward to give them the best opportunity to also gain confidence along with us as we move forward.”

As part of the interim regulations, companies that wish to test autonomous vehicles on Pennsylvania roads will be asked to provide PennDOT with basic information — company name, address, phone number and main point of contact. They will also be asked for proof of a driver or operator training program, certification that operators have passed that training, a list of vehicles expected to be involved in testing, the anticipated routes or geographic areas of testing and proof of insurance. In addition, companies must halt testing when its software or hardware is shared with any vehicle that is the subject of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation.

The NTSB is conducting an investigation into the Arizona incident. When asked if the last stipulation was aimed at Uber, Richards said it applies to all companies. After the crash, Uber halted testing of its self-driving vehicles indefinitely. Pittsburgh is one of the company’s North American testing sites.

Uber is one of a handful of companies testing autonomous cars in the city. Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, backed by a $1 billion investment from Ford, aims to put self-driving cars in production by 2021. Aptiv, formerly known as Delphi, is also testing self-driving car technology in Pittsburgh.

Richards said that the regulations will help the public accept self-driving vehicles, and called prioritizing safety in this instance “economics 101.”

“It’s in the best interest of the industry that we walk in the same direction with the public. They don’t want to be fighting the public every step of the way,” she said. “[It] doesn’t make sense going against the people who you are anticipating to be your clients.”

Within 60 to 90 days,  Richards said she would convene a meeting with the companies testing autonomous vehicle technology to discuss the interim regulations. In addition, the state will reconvene the Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force to review the regulations and update policy recommendations.

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