From PennDOT to Uber, all the ways Pittsburghers can learn about self-driving cars

“The self-driving industry, lawmakers, and civic organizations need to work together to educate and inform the public about self-driving vehicles.”

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Pittsburgh is one of two U.S. cities where you can ride in a self-driving car. It’s home to decades of autonomous vehicle work at CMU.

But there are no state laws specific to testing self-driving cars (yet). And there’s no designated person or entity considered the main resource on the technology.

So who is educating Pittsburghers about this technology and its impact? Right now, the bulk of public awareness falls to PennDOT.

It’s still early for a ton of advocacy from industry, said Jackie Erickson, a founding member of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network. She said developers and researchers are focused on getting their job done and keeping to themselves, so mayors and PennDOT became de facto spokespeople.

“Hopefully that will change. … It’s kind of a chicken and an egg thing,” Erickson said.

But others like the Pittsburgh Technology Council are also stepping forward. And it’s a conversation that many agreed needs to happen.

A state-led approach

After a state Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force released recommendations in December, PennDOT had a webinar and public comment period for feedback and questions.

Many questions were from people wanting to know how testing the self-driving cars would impact them and their drive, Kurt Myers told The Incline on Monday. He’s PennDOT’s deputy secretary for driver and vehicle services and co-chair of the state task force.

Around the same time, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called on leaders of states that are “auto industry hubs” to “help educate a skeptical public” about autonomous vehicles.

“One of the biggest obstacles to deploying this technology is consumer acceptance, and as regulators and public policy makers, we need to work together to educate and address legitimate public concerns about safety and privacy,” she said.

PennDOT staff has talked repeatedly about the importance of communicating with the public about self-driving cars, Myers said. That communication needs to stress the public safety benefits of the technology and that the switch to autonomous vehicles won’t be overnight, he said.

Myers and others from PennDOT speak weekly with various groups about the technology. He has spoken about self-driving cars at Rotary chapter meetings, Wilkes University and is scheduled for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors conference this month. These events are always well-attended, he said, adding that the speaking trips won’t end soon.

“There’s no stopping point. It’s constantly evolving,” he said of the technology.

One of the best forms of public education is happening in Pittsburgh with Uber’s pilot program that allows public rides in self-driving Volvos, Myers said. The public engagement makes riding in the cars familiar, agreed Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the state Senate Transportation Committee.

Uber also sees the pilot as an awareness effort “to educate local communities about the benefits of self-driving vehicles while learning the ways it can be improved for the future,” said Craig Ewer, a spokesman for the company.

Myers pointed to two recent surveys as an example of Pittsburgh’s familiarity with autonomous cars. In a national AAA survey, respondents largely said they were “afraid” of riding in a self-driving car and did not trust them. But in a local survey by Bike Pittsburgh, people felt mostly OK with the cars and recognized the potential to reduce fatal accidents.

Industry and academia are also represented on the state task force, and representatives spoke about the technology at a joint public hearing with the state House and state Senate Transportation committees.

“The self-driving industry, lawmakers, and civic organizations need to work together to educate and inform the public about self-driving vehicles,” said Chan Lieu, advisor to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an organization created by Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo Cars and Waymo.

AAA East Central is also providing information about the new technology through its publications, news releases and driving classes that address autonomous features like adaptive cruise control and parking assist, said Theresa Podguski, director of legislative affairs for AAA East Central.

Coming soon…

The Pittsburgh Technology Council is planning a variety of of educational efforts related to self-driving cars this summer, Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the organization told The Incline.

By then, she said there will be a better understanding of the players in the city, adding that she expects more to be “coming out of the woodwork.” Russo said the council will do everything from multimedia pushes to panels and cover topics from safety to debunking fears. It’s an area that everyone is interested in, she said, adding that the council hopes to work with other organizations for a wider reach.

“We have an opportunity to not leave people behind,” Russo said, adding that the conversations need to be inclusive and about the entire ecosystem.

Molly Nichols, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said she’d like to see the impact on the economy and workforce get more public attention from stakeholders including the city and CMU.

Mayor Bill Peduto said he expects public awareness efforts to increase as legislation moves through Harrisburg.

“I think this will be the next phase of discussion,” he told The Incline.

Deborah Gross, the city council member who represents the Strip District aka home to Uber and Argo AI, said more public awareness would be a good thing.

“Maybe a post-agenda would be a fruitful thing to do in the future,” she suggested, adding that the meeting would be educational for the public and city council.

“The future is coming a lot more quickly than we expected,” Gross said.