Allegheny Co. senators plan to re-introduce this updated Pa. bill on self-driving car testing

But get ready for even more edits to the bill first.

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Five state senators — three of them from Allegheny County — are preparing to re-introduce legislation for testing self-driving cars in the state.

It’s the next step toward a new law and corresponding policies for the testing of self-driving cars on state roads, while keeping safety and innovation at the forefront. Currently, the only law that applies to such testers says a licensed driver must be in the driver’s seat, but that doesn’t mean that person has to touch the wheel. 

A co-sponsorship memo was issued Tuesday, and officials working on the legislation said a bill is expected to be introduced in February, followed by a joint hearing of the state senate and state house transportation committees in March.

Sponsors on the memo are Allegheny County state Senators Randy Vulakovich (R), Wayne D. Fontana (D) and Jay Costa (D), as well as state Senators John C. Rafferty, Jr. (R) and Sen. John P. Sabatina, Jr. (D), who are the chair and minority chair, respectively, of the senate transportation committee.

What’s new this time

Officials said the legislation will look similar to SB 1412 of the 2015-16 session, which didn’t make it out of the senate transportation committee.

The bill has been edited at “almost painstaking levels” after conversations with stakeholders, including auto manufacturers, Carnegie Mellon University, Uber, insurance companies and others, said Charlie O’Neill, legislative director in Vulakovich’s office.

Executive Director of the state Senate Transportation Committee Nolan Ritchie, who works in Rafferty’s office, said the old bill was reviewed for holes and areas that could be improved.

“One area that was missing was reciprocity agreements with other states and other countries,” Ritchie said.

He said the new bill looks to make informal agreements with other states like the Smart Belt Coalition between Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan into formal agreements for collaboration. Other evolutions in self-driving car testing also guided this latest draft, including policy guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and PennDot’s Autonomous Vehicle Testing Policy Task Force.

That state task force of government, industry and research representatives released its recommendations in December and a public comment period ended Jan. 12.

Around 45 people submitted questions or comments to the task force and members are currently responding to each one before the feedback is posted online, PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell told The Incline in an email Wednesday. The policy recommendations could be edited from there and are subject to new legislation before the policies are put in place.

The latest bill will use “best practices” from the task force, current self-driving vehicle testing laws in other states, the federal guidelines and stakeholder feedback, according to the co-sponsorship memo.

The wide range of feedback from first responders to researchers to insurance companies and others isn’t unusual, O’Neil said. “It’s unique in the subject matter, but not unique in the process.”

What’s next

Although the bill will be introduced soon, Ritchie and O’Neil said they don’t expect it to stay the same.

During the joint hearing, stakeholders, like Uber and CMU, will be able to “deep dive” and say what will work and what won’t, Ritchie said. He added that he expects comprehensive amendments after that if needed.

Plus, Ritchie said he doesn’t know if Elaine Chao, likely the new U.S. Department of Transportation secretary, will make changes to federal guidelines on self-driving car testing that could impact the bill. Yet he and others are hopeful that this bill will advance.

Colleen DeFrank, chief of staff for Fontana, said the timing is better now for this legislation because there are more guidelines to consider and follow. Plus, there is more support this time, she said. “There will be a bigger push to get it done,” DeFrank said, adding she’s hopeful this bill will make it out of committee.

O’Neil agreed.

“I’m hopeful that … we can get something onto the governor’s desk,” he said.