Self-Driving Cars: The Future Is Now for Pennsylvanians

For Pennsylvanians, the future is now. Uber is not only researching autonomous vehicle technology, but it just announced passengers might receive rides in autonomous vehicles. For years, Pittsburgh has led the way in autonomous vehicle research because of Carnegie Mellon University — now it will be among the first cities where semi-autonomous vehicles are used commercially.

Autonomous, or self-driving, cars for years were a subject for futurists. Then, self-driving technology moved from science fiction to reality, in part, because of the work of notable academic institutions such as CMU.

A few years ago, Google and other companies decided to test self-driving cars in controlled environments. Google developed a road course at its headquarters in California. Ford and the University of Michigan developed a road course in Michigan.

Along came Uber. Fresh off its successes disrupting the transportation industry, the company decided to throw its weight behind autonomous vehicle development. Uber hired a number of leading researchers from CMU and announced the opening of its Advance Technology Center, a stone’s throw away from CMU’s National Engineering and Robotics Center.

Uber, though, would take a different approach than a number of its competitors. Uber decided to road test its vehicles. Thanks in large part to existing technologies and research conducted by the very CMU experts it hired, Uber believes its technology is ready, literally, to hit the road.

There is, though, one problem facing Pennsylvania’s march to the future: Outdated laws. All the current laws regarding vehicle operations were enacted, or promulgated, on the assumption that a car required a driver.

Enter the Pennsylvania legislature. The House and Senate have proposed bills that would allow companies like Uber to road test autonomous vehicles — to take the self-driving technology to the consumers. The legislation is quite forward thinking; it provides adequate protections for third parties, such as pedestrians and drivers of traditional vehicles, while providing the maximum flexibility for companies testing autonomous vehicle technology.

The forward thinking nature of the proposal will pay significant dividends. It requires the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to submit an annual report to the legislature describing “the status of autonomous vehicle testing, including, but not limited to autonomous vehicle testers, number and type of accidents and recommendations to improve autonomous vehicle testing.”

In other words, Pennsylvania will develop laws and regulations regarding autonomous vehicles that represent real threats to public and driver safety rather than guessing at the type of regulations. This type of forward thinking should place Pennsylvania light years ahead of states like California that have decided regulators know better than researchers regarding the threats posed by autonomous vehicle technology.

The proposal does not yet provide for the sale of autonomous vehicles to consumers, and it applies only to autonomous vehicle testers. But, this is a critical step in bringing the technology to the consumer market.

As Uber has already proven, should Pennsylvania enact such legislation, the Commonwealth will become a hotbed for autonomous vehicle road testing. As more companies decide to test their vehicles in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth will be able to better determine what laws and regulations need enacted to safeguard against real threats.

As regulations are promulgated on the basis of real threats, companies will feel very comfortable offering their products to all Pennsylvanians, and Pennsylvania can become a leader in consumer and commercial self-driving vehicles. For Pennsylvania, the future of self-driving cars is now.

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