Four things PennDOT wants you to know about its plans for testing self-driving cars

“We’re not going to wake up one day and 100 percent of vehicles on our roads will be automated.”

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania are considered leaders in the testing of self-driving cars, according to Leslie S. Richards, PennDOT Secretary.

“And that’s pretty exciting for everyone here in the Commonwealth,” she said Monday night in an online public forum. The webinar followed recommendations from the Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force given to Richards last week.

During the online forum, a six-person panel of PennDOT officials and task force members gave an overview of the recommendations which include PennDOT oversight and proposed restrictions. The panel stressed that the task force focused exclusively on testing of self-driving cars, not deployment of the vehicles.

Online forum about recommendations to PennDOT for testing of self-driving cars

Online forum about recommendations to PennDOT for testing of self-driving cars

The task force includes two Pittsburghers —  Carnegie Mellon University Professor Raj Rajkumar and Erika Strassburger, chief of staff for Pittsburgh Councilman Dan Gilman, as well as two representatives from Uber. The ride-sharing company launched a public pilot of the self-driving cars in Pittsburgh three months ago.

Self-driving cars are an “enormous transportation revolution,” Richards said and added that it’s “coming faster than we ever dreamed.” As policies and autonomous vehicle technology continue to be developed, here are four things PennDOT says to keep in mind.

Laws are needed

Task force members didn’t always agree during meetings over the last six months, and one of the most interesting instances was over whether the policy should go forward before legislation was enacted, said Roger Cohen, co-chair of the task force.

The policies have no effect until legislation is passed, he said, adding that if polices were put in place first, they might need to be changed to be consistent with the new laws.

Task force members are working with members of the state house and state senate transportation committees, as well as all state lawmakers to further proposed legislation when the session starts in January, said Kurt Myers, PennDOT deputy secretary and co-chair of the task force. Cohen said the task force decided it was useful to have the policies ready for when legislation is eventually passed.

It won’t happen overnight

Following the presentation, panel members answered questions submitted online including one from Noah (he didn’t give his last name) in Pittsburgh who asked about autonomous vehicles eliminating jobs.

“I do think it’s important to keep perspective here,” Myers said.

He said that while self-driving cars could cause changes in jobs, the transition period from testing to deployment is extensive. Myers said that five percent of vehicles in the state – not including classic or collector cars — are 20 years old or more, so it’s not as if everyone will get a new car at once.

“It will take decades for [this to be] integrated to day-to-day life of the Commonwealth,” he said. But, he said, job creation and elimination due to the technology is something the state is going to keep in mind and address.

Richards agreed. “We’re not going to wake up one day and 100 percent of vehicles on our roads will be automated,” she said. “That may never happen, and if it does, it will be far into the future.”

Safety is No. 1

The second Pittsburgher to ask a question during the online forum was named Michael, and he asked about the safety of testing the cars and why they couldn’t just use simulations instead.

“Real world situations are the best way to test this data,” Richards said, but she and the others stressed that safety was at the forefront of the policy development.

She said 95 percent of fatalities on Pennsylvania roads are due to human error, so this technology allows for eventually taking human distraction out of the equation. She said moving ahead is “the prudent thing to do.”

Public support is needed

Some companies do use simulation in their research and some use field tests, added Mark Kopko, PennDOT advance vehicle technology manager.

Regardless, self-driving cars need the general public to embrace the idea. And in order to do that, people need to see the cars regularly, like people do in Pittsburgh, he said. “Seeing is believing.” 

The future of the policies on testing really hingers on public involvement, Richards said, and urged viewers to get involved.

Any changes to the recommendations following the online forum will be posted on the PennDOT website. Richards asked Pennsylvanians to read the recommendations and email their opinions to [email protected]. Feedback will be collected through Jan. 12.

Read the task force’s recommendations here: