Will Pennsylvania halt self-driving vehicle testing like Arizona did?

It would mean changing state law.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Updated: 3:14 p.m.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday suspended Uber’s ability to test self-driving vehicles in Arizona after a fatal crash there March 18.

But Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto today said he’s not ready to make a similar recommendation for Pennsylvania.

He stressed that if there were changes to self-driving vehicle testing, it would come from the state, not the city. The state regulates motor vehicles, including autonomous cars, he said, following an unrelated press conference at Pittsburgh Police headquarters.

But according to JJ Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, current state law wouldn’t allow testing to be suspended.

Both Peduto and Abbott pointed to differences between state rules for autonomous vehicles in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Here, state law requires a licensed driver in the driver’s seat of a self-driving car. Pennsylvania has been clear that fully automated vehicles can’t be tested here, but Arizona allowed vehicles to be tested without a human through an executive order from Ducey, Abbott said in an email to The Incline.

Because of current law, PennDOT doesn’t have the power to suspend testing, Abbott said. However, he wrote that the governor has supported adding laws for self-driving vehicles:

The Governor has called for legislation to improve oversight of autonomous vehicle testing by defining the role entities such as PennDOT, the State Police and the Pennsylvania Turnpike play, and provide a governance structure for automated vehicle testing and deployment in the Commonwealth to enhance safety requirements and other issues.

Currently, three self-driving vehicle bills — one in the Pa. Senate and two in the Pa. House — have been referred to their respective transportation committees, and the possibility of advancement is unclear.

In Pittsburgh, Peduto is wary of any changes in response to the fatal crash in Arizona, and said he hasn’t talked to Gov. Tom Wolf about Ducey’s announcement. The mayor, though, said he would recommend not doing anything until the investigations by Tempe police and the National Transportation Safety Board in Arizona are complete.

“We could see then if a change is needed,” Peduto said.

In a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Ducey said the video of the March 18 crash involving a self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian was “disturbing and alarming, and it raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona,” per Reuters.

Uber pulled the cars in Arizona, as well as in Pittsburgh, Toronto and San Francisco, after the crash and has yet to resume testing.

Despite Uber’s testing hiatus in Pittsburgh, multiple other companies continue to test here, and Peduto said he expects two more companies to start testing in Pittsburgh this year.

This is the third time Uber has suspended testing in Pittsburgh. The first suspension came in March 2017 after a crash in Tempe, Ariz., where a car failed to yield to a self-driving car, and the fleet was grounded again in September 2017 after a crash near the Hot Metal Bridge. In both cases, there were no serious injuries.

Peduto said the city has worked with the state and PennDOT to ensure safety is at the forefront.

According to Abbott, Uber and PennDOT are working together, and the company will consult PennDOT before testing can start again.

The mayor added that he is worried about public perception of the technology and said autonomous vehicles are ultimately about safety and preventing crashes that are due to human error, adding that more than a million people worldwide die each year due to human error in cars.

Like airplanes and even cars, he said, there will always be some risk to developing technology that’s brought 15,000 jobs and $3 billion in investment to the city.