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Tech companies are using Pennsylvania roads to test self-driving vehicles. Are they following the state’s guidelines?

Self-driving car companies are ramping up their testing in Pennsylvania, but the state has no hard laws or regulations governing how this testing takes place.

One of the test vehicles from Argo AI, Ford's autonomous vehicle unit, navigates through the strip district near the company offices in Pittsburgh. Argo AL has been among the busiest testers of self-driving vehicles in Pennsylvania.
One of the test vehicles from Argo AI, Ford's autonomous vehicle unit, navigates through the strip district near the company offices in Pittsburgh. Argo AL has been among the busiest testers of self-driving vehicles in Pennsylvania.Read moreKeith Srakocic / AP

Self-driving cars powered their way across tens of thousands of miles on Pennsylvania roads last year as some of the world’s largest tech companies tested experimental vehicles on the same highways state residents use to shop, commute and get to school.

But while the state has no hard laws or regulations governing how this testing takes place, state officials say these businesses are complying with voluntary guidelines. A Morning Call Right-To-Know request found eight companies submitted to an optional authorization process and filed semi-annual reports about their efforts in 2020. The data they volunteered, viewed through the Right-To-Know request, gave the state information about approximately where they test their vehicles and a rough idea of how many miles they traveled.

None of the authorized businesses reported testing their technology outside western Pennsylvania, although one company signaled a possible interest in testing in the Lehigh Valley.

The data also highlights how the state is attempting to work with the auto manufacturers and researchers behind the cutting-edge technology. Rather than track every mile these cars travel or what level of automation the firms are developing, PennDOT officials are more interested in learning about the training procedures test drivers must go through and what towing companies and fire crews need to know should they respond to a crash involving a highly autonomous vehicle, or HAV.

Mark Kopko, director of PennDOT’s Office of Transformational Technology, said the lack of detail collected about the testing itself is an intentional design of the state’s guidelines. Pennsylvania lacks the expertise to create regulations on the development of HAVs and companies are reluctant to share them, viewing that data as protected trade secrets. However, those companies recognize the government’s interest in promoting safe roads and are more willing to share the best practices they’ve developed.

“If you have good safety drivers and the appropriate safety culture if the technology does fail, you are most likely not putting that vehicle in any position where you could have any type of catastrophic failure,” Kopko said.

Testing in Pennsylvania

While states such as Massachusetts and Texas have passed laws of varying strictness about how and where these vehicles may be tested on public roads, legislators in Washington, D.C. and Harrisburg have largely taken a hands-off approach. That left agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and PennDOT to come up with their own regulations.

Under PennDOT’s voluntary guidelines, companies must apply for authorization to test their HAVs on public roads, providing a general outline of where they want to drive and the safety protocols and training regimens their test drivers and engineers have gone through. Once a company is authorized, it needs to file semi-annual updates, sharing approximately how many miles their vehicles traveled, how many people they employed in the state and the counties they tested in.

In 2020, eight entities were authorized to test in Pennsylvania, including Motional AD, a tech company using self-driving shuttles in Las Vegas and Aurora Innovation, a tech giant that’s partnered with Toyota and Volvo. The busiest has been Argo AI, which had its HAVs travel at least 45,000 miles on arterial roads in Alleghany and Westmoreland counties. The company has formed partnerships with Ford and Volkswagen.

NVIDIA, a international technology corporation best known for computer graphics, received authorization to test vehicles on Interstate 78 and Route 22 but did not do so, according to documents it filed with PennDOT.

All of the companies centered their work around Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon University has been researching autonomous vehicle technology since the mid-1980s. The university is among the groups authorized to perform research on public roads. Qualcomm Technologies received authorization to start testing in the greater Philadelphia area in January. PennDOT reports the company is authorized to perform research on public roads as far north as Bucks County.

PennDOT was not aware of any unauthorized businesses releasing HAVs on public roads, Kopko said. PennDOT had no records of any crashes involving an automated vehicle last year.

Because Pennsylvania hasn’t updated its vehicle code, HAVs here still must have a live, licensed driver capable of taking the wheel. As a result, self-driving cars with no way for a human to take direct control — such as Waymo’s taxi service in Phoenix — can’t legally run in the Keystone State.

At some point, Kopko said, that will need to change. But for now, PennDOT doesn’t feel a rush to rewrite laws or craft regulations about HAVs. The technology is evolving so quickly, he said, that having strict rules in place could create a burden given the slow pace of legislation. When other states approach Pennsylvania and ask about its system, it encourages them to create a system flexible enough to keep up with the emerging industry, he said.

“We’ve been very happy that the industry has gone for this even though the testing guidance is simply that — guidance,” Kopko said. “It’s not mandatory, but all the stakeholders treat it as though it is.”

Despite the lack of laws and regulations, Pennsylvanians shouldn’t feel unsafe with testing taking place on public roads, said Jane Lappin, chair of the Transportation Research Board’s Standing Committee on Road Vehicle Automation at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The tech companies and auto makers have a vested interest in producing a safe product and have too much to lose by cutting corners, she said. Companies have teamed up with government agencies to form task forces and organizations such as the Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium and the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, where they can share safety practices.

“What we see, and there are a couple of notable exceptions, they don’t want to make any mistakes,” Lappin said. “They don’t want to endanger anyone.”

Wave of the future

To some extent, self-driving cars are already available. Cruise control has existed for decades, and many cars are capable of parking themselves or automatically stopping to avoid a head-on collision. Auto makers and tech firms are now preparing the next generation — vehicles capable of driving themselves with little to no oversight from a human driver.

The safety benefits of this technology — if perfected — are enormous. While some drivers go years or a lifetime without being in a serious crash, 36,560 people died in collisions in 2018. Many factors play a role in crashes, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that human error contributes to 94% of accidents.

“It won’t drive drunk. It won’t drive sleepy,” Lappin said. “It won’t turn around and ask what in God’s name are the kids doing in the back seat. I’ve done that before. It won’t.”

The social and economic changes are far reaching as well, she said. Truck companies that have struggled to keep up with the demand e-commerce has created could cut backlog despite a shortage of drivers. A car capable of driving itself could grant new independence to the disabled or restore it to elderly drivers who gave up their licenses.

But the challenges of building that technology are enormous. Humans struggle to balance their speed, the curve of the road and the distance between themselves and other vehicles while checking their blind spots, watching for pedestrians, being mindful of weather conditions and keeping track of directions. Many car designers have had to temper earlier promises about when the technology would arrive and Lappin said it’s still unclear when HAVs could become widespread.

Still, she said, there has been steady progress. Tesla and GM have sold vehicles capable of maintaining safe speeds, cornering, centering in a lane and gauging the distance between themselves and other cars on limited access highways. Waymo, a sister company of Google, has been testing taxis that don’t need human drivers in Phoenix, where the consistent weather creates ideal conditions.

But the only way to get the information needed for the next breakthroughs is to allow vehicles onto public roads so the software can experience real-world conditions and regional idiosyncrasies like the Pittsburgh left, a tendency for drivers in western Pennsylvania to turn left despite lacking the right of way, Lappin said. She compared it to giving a high school student a learner’s permit. The main difference is each teenager needs to learn the difficult lessons of the road individually.

“Every time one vehicle is out testing, it’s recording what’s going on around it. It’s learning,” she said. “When you’re working with a fleet of automated vehicles, what one vehicle learns, the whole fleet learns.”