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State unveils guidelines for self-driving cars

PennDot introduced recommendations on Tuesday for self-driving vehicles, an emerging technology Pennsylvania wants to encourage.

"One of the main goals of this policy was to allow the technology to grow in an appropriate way, and to mature as it should," said Leslie Richards, the state's transportation secretary. "We don't want to restrict that growth."

Legislation that could pass next year would give PennDot wide latitude to regulate the development of autonomous vehicles in the state. The transportation department has sought a free hand in regulating the industry because, the report issued Tuesday stated, "the conventional oversight mechanisms, such as the formal regulatory process, are too slow and inflexible to keep pace with the fast‐changing technology."

The recommendations were the result of six months of deliberations by the state Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, a group that included government officials, engineers, industry personnel, advocates, and academics.  They are posted on PennDot's website, and the department is hosting an online session Monday from 7 to 8 p.m. that will let the public offer comment.

Pennsylvania's variable climate and geography make it an ideal testing ground for self-driving vehicles. Pittsburgh has taken the lead as a friendly home for developers. Carnegie Mellon University is a leader in the field, and this fall Uber began offering passengers rides in its autonomous vehicles around some parts of the city.

Uber declined to comment on the recommendations Tuesday.

According to legislation that would let PennDot implement the recommendations, the department would enter into a contract with any entity that wished to test a self-driving vehicle. That contract would include proof of $5 million in liability insurance and could be suspended or canceled by the department.

The recommendations call for requiring that entities testing autonomous vehicles give PennDot a description of their testing plan, including the geographic area and road types the vehicle would be using, the speed the vehicle would be traveling, and the weather in which it can operate.

PennDot would have the right to restrict autonomous vehicles to certain routes; be able to restrict platooning, a system by which self-driving vehicles are wirelessly connected to one another and travel as a sort of convoy; and would require testers to collect and share data about the vehicles' operations, including crash data.

"We are going to be sure they are keeping data so we can follow back on any type of minor or major crashes," Richards said. "We are all concerned with making sure it's done as safely as possible."

The recommendations also address security, including requirements that testers provide proof of cybersecurity precautions and that the vehicles can be shut down by law enforcement or emergency responders.

Current state law requires that a self-driving car have a steering wheel and a person in the driver's seat, but the recommendations were written to anticipate developments that may negate the need for both. When that happens, the recommendations give PennDot the ability to require a demonstration of the vehicle before allowing it to operate on public roads.