Industry to state: Proposed self-driving vehicle law needs more flexibility

State lawmakers listened to more than three hours of testimony this morning. We wrote this so you don’t have to.

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Proposed legislation for testing self-driving cars needs to be more flexible and account for deployment, industry representatives told members of the state House and Senate transportation committees today.

For three hours, lawmakers listened to testimony from experts regarding testing self-driving cars and the proposed SB 427, which creates laws for that testing. The experts included Professor Raj Rajkumar of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as state leaders and representatives from national auto organizations and companies like General Motors and Uber.

Speakers and lawmakers stressed benefits, including safety, increased mobility and environmental advantages. While some issues were brought up, most criticism surfaced when industry representatives came forward for a roundtable near the end of the hearing.

The bill is a “well-intended effort,” said Chan Lieu, policy advisor for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, composed of Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo Cars and Waymo.

But Jeffrey Perry, director of public policy for General Motors, said “what has been presented at this point needs a lot of work.”

And Wayne Weikel, senior director of state government affairs for Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said his organization can’t support the bill as is.

Those speakers, as well as others on the roundtable, said they were concerned about obstacles to testing, such as an application process, and that the bill didn’t address deployment.

“A testing-only approach would send a sign that deployment is not welcome [in the state],” Lieu said, adding that the testing bill will quickly be outdated.

Shari Shapiro, Uber’s senior manager of public affairs for Pennsylvania and Delaware, said companies like hers will always be testing, and it could be argued that Uber has already deployed self-driving cars.

Damon Shelby Porter, director of state government affairs for Global Automakers, agreed and suggested that the state go on an alternative public policy path that wouldn’t include “cumbersome” legislation. “It’s not that we are opposed to any particular legislation for legislation’s sake,” he said, adding that legislation should only be used if it’s needed and won’t hold back testing.

Allegheny County state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, a Republican, later said that he understands that to researchers “regulation can kill research,” but state lawmakers’ goals are to ensure public safety, and there needs to be a process especially when it comes to the liability of self-driving cars.

Weikel also pointed out several other issues he had with the bill, including markings indicating which cars are self-driving. He said that would prevent real-world testing because other drivers would change their driving based on the self-driving car.

Earlier in the hearing, Rajkumar and Kurt Myers, PennDOT deputy secretary for Driver & Vehicle Services, also asked lawmakers for increased flexibility to not create barriers to testing.

But Myers also responded to the industry leaders’ criticism, saying he knew they’d agree that safety and innovation are not mutually exclusive. But public trust is going to be very important, especially as more self-driving cars deploy.

It is critical that the technology is ready and isn’t a “marketing ploy,” he said.