Four things PennDOT can — and can’t — tell Pennsylvania about self-driving cars

Here’s what Pennsylvanians asked the state task force about those robot cars.

Uber's fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions from 2016

Uber's fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions from 2016

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Uber’s had self-driving cars picking up and dropping off Pittsburghers since September. And on Friday, Ford joined Uber, Delphi and CMU in the self-driving vehicle development game here.

It’s something state transportation laws don’t account for, and only one current law applies to testers of self-driving cars: A licensed driver must be in the driver’s seat, but doesn’t have to touch the wheel.

So what does the testing mean for Pennsylvanians? How does it impact their money and their travel?

During the last month, the state Autonomous Vehicle Testing Policy Task Force responded to roughly 45 questions and comments about its policy recommendations regarding having self-driving cars test on roads in the state, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell.

The department posted the questions/comments and answers on its autonomous vehicle testing website. There were recurring themes, so the ones on the website are condensed “into the most frequently-asked topics,” Campbell told The Incline in an email.

She said the “work of the task force isn’t done, and the policy is a ‘living document.’ The task force has reviewed all public feedback and will take it into consideration as the policy evolves.” The policy recommendations can’t be put into place until new legislation on self-driving vehicle testing becomes law.

That testing legislation is still expected to be introduced this month, and a joint hearing of the state senate and state house transportation committees is tentatively scheduled for late March, Colleen DeFrank, chief of staff for Allegheny County state Sen. Wayne D. Fontana (D) told The Incline on Tuesday. Fontana, along with fellow Allegheny County state Senators Randy Vulakovich (R) and Jay Costa (D) are three of the five state senators who issued a co-sponsorship memo for the legislation Jan. 24.

In the meantime, this is how the task force responded to public feedback:

There are a lot of unknowns.

Several people asked about data points: How many self-driving vehicles are on the roads? How many self-driving cars have been in crashes?

Right now, PennDOT doesn’t know.

There are no “laws, regulations, or policies in effect that require HAV Testers to report HAV testing activities to PennDOT,” according to the task force. That also means PennDOT doesn’t know locations or the number of testing companies in the state.

That’s why the task force wants more policies that would include applications and permits to track this data.

Similarly with crashes, reporting doesn’t require a self-driving car to be identified as such in a crash where there is injury, death or damage to the point the car can’t be driven. Minor fender-benders aren’t considered reportable, so PennDOT wouldn’t know about those, either.

Drivers want to know what it will be like to share the roads with self-driving cars.

Most Pennsylvanians will spend more time sharing the roads with self-driving vehicles than riding in one. What happens when one hits your car?

Depends, according to the task force. If the automated driving system isn’t engaged, then it’s the usual rules, as if the driver didn’t have a car topped with “an elaborate headdress of spinning lasers.”

But if the vehicle IS in self-driving mode, is “not yet clear,” according to the task force, and could depend on any new laws or regulations regarding self-driving vehicle liability.

Also, this ultimatum was posed to PennDOT: If the self-driving car had no choice but to collide with the vehicle or person in front of it or in the opposing lane, how will it decide?

The task force first pointed out that it will be built into the vehicle for it to select the option that is “minimal risk” as quickly as possible. But, if it has to decide between “two equally bad options,” well, that’s an ethics discussion for society that hopefully will be about a situation that’s happening less and less often, the task force said.

Who’s paying for this?

Pennsylvanians may have to share the roads with self-driving cars, but they don’t have to pay for them. Per the task force’s answer:

Current autonomous vehicle policies do not allocate any taxpayer money to autonomous car manufacturers, testers, or other industry participants.

But, there’s a lot of money coming into Pittsburgh for the development. Mayor Bill Peduto told The Incline that Uber has indicated it will invest $1 billion into the local economy over the next several years. On Friday, Ford announced a $1 billion investment into Pittsburgh-based Argo AI for the company to develop the “virtual driver system” for it’s self-driving cars.

There are still unanswered questions.

PennDOT listed its responses to public feedback online, but at the bottom were three comments/questions labeled as “additional.”

  • Will autonomous vehicles put people out of work?
  • Why doesn’t the task force include a representative from the cycling community?
  • Any information relating to the development of HAV technology should be readily available to the public.

Campbell said those questions were included for transparency so the “public would get a clearer sense of the types of feedback we are receiving.”

She added that the task force responded to the people who made those comments with a general response that pointed out that the task force’s No. 1 goal is safety, and the group worked with “stakeholders from the public, vehicle manufacturers, state police and other state agencies to coordinate for the safest possible on-road testing conditions.”