Fed guidelines for self-driving cars won't get in Pa.'s way

Federal guidelines for self-driving vehicles released Tuesday will complement Pennsylvania’s plans to create a policy framework for the technology that has the potential to be a major industry in the state, the state’s transportation secretary said.

“It’s validated everything we’ve done up to this point,” Leslie Richards said. 

The 114-page National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines provide safety points that manufacturers should meet, offer a blueprint for state regulation, and divide federal and state oversight. 

“For PennDot, this helps them and gives them some regulatory certainty,” said Costa Samaras, a Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Pennsylvania  requires that a person be in the driver’s seat and have the ability to control the vehicle in order for a self-driving car to operate on open roads. PennDot is looking for legislators to give it more flexibility in rule-making in order to keep up with the fast-evolving technology.

Richards has asked a task force to give her, this fall, a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for how the state should address the autonomous vehicle industry.

The state, particularly Pittsburgh, has become a center of development for self-driving vehicles partly due to the expertise at Carnegie Mellon University, partly because Pennsylvania offers varied terrain and the challenge of seasonal weather. Uber made news last week by being the first company in America to offer rides in autonomous vehicles to Pittsburgh passengers.  Richards said nothing in the federal guidelines would keep Uber, or research organizations such as Carnegie Mellon, from running their cars in public.

“I think we’re all moving carefully,” she said, “and moving in a way that gives us the greatest flexibility.”

In announcing the guidelines, federal authorities described autonomous vehicles as a technology that could eventually save thousands of lives and provide mobility for people who now are unable to drive themselves.

“We’re envisioning a future where you can take your hands off the wheel, and the wheel out of the car, and your commute becomes productive or restful, rather than frustrating and stressful,” said Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, in a conference call Monday.

Federal authorities want companies manufacturing self-driving technology to provide documentation on how they are conforming with the government's  15-point safety assessment. This should include how and where the autonomous vehicle is designed to function, what the vehicle will do if the self-driving feature fails, what will happen if the vehicle is in a crash, and what protections exist against hacking.

The guidelines are subject to a 60-day comment period and are a good start to the conversation, said Daniel Lee, director of  University of Pennsylvania’s robotics lab, but he noted that the speed at which technology moves may make answering some of these simple questions difficult. Autonomous vehicle technology is upgraded by the data from every trip the car takes, and establishing how a car will respond to a given situation might not always be possible.

 The guidelines envision federal agencies taking responsibility for the software and technology of self-driving vehicles before the technology hits the open market, while states would continue to manage licensing and would be responsible for the vehicles themselves, with authority to conduct inspections and regulate insurance and liability. That arrangement could end up causing challenges with private companies such as Uber, which jealously protects data about its operations.

In a conference call Tuesday, David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, founded by companies such as Uber, Google, and Ford, sidestepped the question about how much information the companies would share with the government by saying the guidelines, which for now are nonbinding, are a starting point.

Eventually, though, self-driving car producers will likely hew closely to the federal recommendations.

“What these manufacturers are looking for is the ability to sell cars in all 50 states,” Samaras said. “Anything they can do to improve those odds of driving robot cars, they’re going to go along with.”