Self-driving vehicles are coming, a top Pennsylvania transportation official said Thursday, and they will change life beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
A new state task force that includes industry heavy hitters General Motors and Uber has been meeting with state officials and transit trade groups to prepare Pennsylvania for arrival of the still-experimental twist on transport.
The group is working to devise guidelines for how to safely test such vehicles on Pennsylvania roads, said PennDot policy director Roger J. Cohen.
"We are at the advent of a transformation in transportation that will be similar in scale to the rise of the internet . . . aviation . . . the automobile itself," Cohen told the Pennsylvania State Transportation Commission during its quarterly gathering at a Bucks County hotel.
Research and planning efforts in Pennsylvania - thanks to years of pioneering study at Carnegie Mellon University - have put the state in the forefront of the autonomous-vehicle world, along with California, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida, he said.
After developing an autonomous Cadillac and testing it on roads in Western Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon has turned Pittsburgh into "one of the epicenters of this innovation," Cohen said.
Google, GM, and Uber have planted stakes near the work being done at the university, he said.
Cohen's remarks about the Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force, of which he is a member, came at the close of a meeting during which members discussed a sweeping review of planned transportation spending for the next 12 years.
The task force's work is to create a legal language guiding these efforts. The technology is so new that there are no laws or regulations guiding what precisely is or is not permissible as such vehicles are tested.
"It's actually legal right now for an autonomous vehicle to operate," Cohen said. All that's needed to comply is a licensed driver behind a steering wheel.
The task force expects to issue policy recommendations by the end of November. If pending House and Senate bills permitting on-road testing become law, Cohen said, Pennsylvania will have implementation guidelines ready to roll.
The commission, led by Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards, estimated $61.8 billion would be on tap for projects statewide over the next dozen years - about $1 billion less than anticipated two years ago.
The reason for the drop, officials said, is that fuel efficiency of vehicles has reduced the amount of gasoline sold in Pennsylvania. That means less tax revenue for transit, even though motorists are driving more miles statewide.
Hundreds of millions of dollars also are being siphoned away from the state's Motor License Fund to cover ballooning costs of financing the state police, officials warned. More money for the police means less money for transportation projects.
With funding tight, officials described sometimes stinging efforts to balance the state's many compelling infrastructure priorities. For instance, efforts to aggressively reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges - a priority in recent years - have come at the expense of resurfacing fewer roads.
In 1993, PennDot completely reconstructed 200 miles of road. Today, the number is about 50 miles a year.