A new bill on self-driving vehicle testing won’t change how crashes are reported or who’s liable — but it might change whether a, you know, human has to be behind the steering wheel.
On Friday, 10 state senators including Allegheny County’s James Brewster (D), Jay Costa (D), Wayne D. Fontana (D) and Randy Vulakovich (R) introduced legislation that builds on a previous bill and creates rules for testing self-driving cars in the state.
There are still edits to be made, said Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the state Senate Transportation Committee. He said roughly 100 stakeholders from state agencies to potential testers were notified that the bill was introduced and are providing feedback. Some are stakeholders who were involved in crafting the bill while others are new, he said. There will be more feedback during testimony at a joint state House and Senate public hearing on the bill scheduled for March 21.
After that, Ritchie said the bill will be reviewed, and he anticipates changes to the version introduced Friday.
Here are the highlights from the current SB 427:
- Applications are required. Potential testers of self-driving vehicles will apply to PennDOT, which could charge an application fee up to $200. Companies already legally testing (e.g. Uber) need to submit an application within a year of the effective date of the bill. PennDOT also has the ability to suspend or cancel a permit.
- You’ll be able to tell which cars are self-driving. Once an application is approved, PennDOT will issue a permit along with a “highly automated vehicle” (HAV) sticker for each vehicle’s license plate. In addition to the sticker, the self-driving vehicle will be marked on both sides with the tester name, an HAV ID number and PennDOT insignia.
- There might not be a human in the cars. Maybe. Current state law requires a licensed driver in the driver’s seat, even if that person isn’t touching the steering wheel. But the bill could change that.
It all depends on the self-driving car’s “level,” as ranked from 0 to 5 by the Society of Automotive Engineers, Ritchie said. Levels 0 to 2 are cars that need a human driver, but levels 3 and up designate highly automated vehicles, which do at least some of the driving on their own.
According to the bill, a person must be in a level 3 car. But, if it’s a level 4 or 5, having a person in the car is optional, but someone must remotely operate it.
- Safety first. Testers have to follow state and local traffic laws, as well as follow the department’s safety and emission inspection requirements. Ritchie said current laws for reporting vehicle crashes won’t change under the bill, so testers won’t be required to report minor accidents. Likewise, liability for crashes won’t change either, meaning it will be on the test operator for anything that happens with the vehicle.
- There will be a safety committee. PennDOT will establish a Highly Automated Vehicle Safety Advisory Committee to meet at least once per year. It will be composed of several state officials, the commissioner of the state police, state lawmakers and multiple members appointed by the governor. The committee will advise and comment on all phases of self-driving car testing, platooning, safety programs, public education and training for EMS and law enforcement.
- Some information about testers will be online. PennDOT will post a list of approved self-driving car testers on its website. But tester data and information and reports submitted to PennDOT from the tester would be kept confidential if it reveals “proprietary trade secrets or personally identifiable information about an individual.” (Industry leaders previously said they oppose making data like this public.)
- Platooning is allowed. This means that one or more vehicles could be joined to a lead vehicle via a wireless connection that would operate the platoon. However, a person must be in each platooned vehicle no matter its the level, Ritchie said. Platooning can only happen on select roadways.