Self-driving vehicles

CMU, hills and tunnels: Why PennDOT says Pittsburgh should be a ‘proving ground’ for automated vehicles

An application to U.S. DOT also touted support from Mayor Bill Peduto and other local officials.

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Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

PennDOT wants the U.S. Department of Transportation to designate three sites in Pennsylvania as automated vehicle “proving grounds.”

The state transportation agency’s application to join the federal pilot program touts three testing areas for self-driving cars: Pittsburgh, Penn State and the Pocono Raceway. The program designates facilities that are qualified for safe testing, demonstration and deployment of self-driving vehicles.

The selected facilities would be able to share best practices for testing and development, according to a November callout for applications from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. The designation wouldn’t mean additional federal funding, but could help the state win funds should they become available, reported TribLive. 

In its 32-page application, PennDOT stressed current testing and partnerships between government, higher education and industry across the state, as well as the ongoing work of the state Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force. (You still have time to weigh in on the task force’s recommendations.)

And of course, PennDOT bragged about autonomous vehicle development and testing in Pittsburgh, including the Uber self-driving car pilot that launched in September.

“The driver-assisted testing of their (Uber’s) autonomous vehicles remains ongoing. On a smaller scale, CMU has tested autonomous vehicle technology on and around the Pittsburgh-based campus for decades,” PennDOT officials wrote in the application.

Here are four ways PennDOT used work in Pittsburgh to sway the feds.

The college scene

Pittsburgh has a long history of autonomous vehicles, thanks to research at Carnegie Mellon University spanning decades. More recently, CMU and the City of Pittsburgh have collaborated on a variety of technologies related to self-driving cars, according to the application, including adaptive traffic signal control systems in East Liberty, autonomous vehicle policy for an urban setting and Pittsburgh’s application for the Smart City Challenge (which it lost) as well as grants that it did win. 

The application also stressed the expertise of Raj Rajkumar, who has participated in U.S. DOT functions as a speaker and panelist.

Rajkumar is the George Westinghouse professor at CMU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the director of Technologies for Safe and Efficient Transportation, a U.S. DOT University Transportation Center with CMU and Penn. That center is focused on the safety of self-driving cars including in the car, its interactions with humans and more. 

He’s also a member of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force and would be designated a safety officer for the pilot program (more on that role late).

Both CMU and the University of Pittsburgh have “recognized veterans and leading researchers in the field of HAV technology,” according to the application. Rajkumar and Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for community and government relations at Pitt, both wrote letters of support as part of the application.

Pitt’s Center for Social and Urban Research also comes into play with the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, which is a partnership between Pitt, the city and Allegheny County with support from the university, Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

That center, along with CMU, would help contribute data and research to “PennDOT’s larger state-wide education and informational programming” for the pilot program.

Department of Mobility & Infrastructure

Pittsburgh’s 2017 budget includes funds for a leader of the Department of Mobility & Infrastructure, a brand-new agency that will aim to make city transportation safe, sustainable, efficient and accessible.

According to PennDOT’s application, the department’s leader will be announced early this month. That person will also serve as a “designated safety officer” as required by the U.S. DOT for the application. The safety officer would be responsible for a safety management plan and participate in regular quarterly meetings. (This is the same safety officer role as Rajkumar.)

The safety officers would have regular meetings with staff from Mobility & Infrastructure as well as the departments of public works and city planning, members of the mayor’s office and others in the industry and higher education.

Officials from the new city department would also work with the state and federal departments of transportation to show that PennDOT and its partners can organize, manage and execute a “safe and successful testing operation in an urban setting,” according to the application.

Government and industry support

PennDOT also stressed the support it has from Pittsburgh, county government and industry organizations based in Pittsburgh.

“The leaders of the City, County, Commonwealth, corporate interests, anchor non-profit institutions, and philanthropies have not worked so closely together in generations. Given this shared vision, we believe lessons learned in Pittsburgh will be more easily exported to our surrounding municipalities in Allegheny County, and throughout Pennsylvania,” PennDOT wrote in the application.

In the Tuesday news release, Mayor Bill Peduto, a supporter of self-driving car innovation, added, “We’re thrilled to be a partner with PennDOT on this application, and continue our leadership as a laboratory for innovation that benefits all residents.”

The application also noted that since the Uber pilot launched in September, the city has worked to address safety concerns from residents and “no incidents have been recorded related to the testing.” However, several have been spotted, according to local news reports, including The Incline.

The city’s 2017 capital budget sets aside $15.1 million for street resurfacing, enough for more than 60 miles to be completed, according to the application. PennDOT also said the city’s budget for street resurfacing has more than doubled since 2014.

In addition to letters of support from CMU and Pitt representatives, PennDOT included letters to Foxx from Peduto; Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive; James Hessinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission; and Robert Rubinstein, acting executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. All the letters called the application a “visionary proposal.”  

Rubinstein also noted that URA has “supported efforts to expand mobile and field robotics research and commercialization in Pittsburgh for nearly twenty years.”

Physical characteristics

PennDOT’s application divides different types of self-driving vehicle testing among the three testing areas (Pittsburgh, Penn State and Pocono Raceway).

Both Penn State and the Pocono Raceway are closed tracks. Penn State would host low-speed, transit and commercial testing and controlled safety crashes. The raceway would accommodate high-speed testing and platooning (where vehicles are closely grouped for efficiency) as well as other types of testing upon request.

Pittsburgh is the only site in the application where testing would take place on public roadways in an urban environment with bridges and tunnels, according to PennDOT.

Although Pittsburgh has “a relatively small geography footprint,” it has a range of densities from the Downtown business district to urban neighborhoods to suburbs, PennDOT said. Pittsburgh also has hills, rivers and varying weather that make it “the ideal city for simulating a variety of locales, climates and levels of density.”

“Where testers such as Uber have already been busy testing in live traffic and in a variety of real-world conditions that HAVs must eventually master, including inclement weather, topography, and other transportation challenges, such as negotiating bridges, tunnels, and the city’s active bicycle culture,” PennDOT wrote.

U.S. DOT said it will make selections for the pilot program in the first quarter of 2017. Read PennDOT’s application here:

Provided by PennDOT