Speaking with Bloomberg News at a recent event at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi made a bold — if not obvious — declaration.
As soon as next year, he said, the company wants to remove human failsafes from the driverless vehicles it’s currently testing in cities such as Pittsburgh.
But while Pittsburgh was the launch site for Uber’s pioneering autonomous vehicle fleet picking up passengers, and while the city’s streets continue to be a proving ground for the nascent technology, there are additional obstacles here when it comes to taking humans out from behind the wheel.
For starters, it’s illegal under Pennsylvania law, which requires a licensed driver be behind the wheel of any vehicle on the road. That law, however, doesn’t require the driver to be touching the steering wheel.
There are, however, bills currently before the General Assembly that could change that.
According to Nolan R. Ritchie, executive director of the state’s Senate Transportation Committee:
- Senate Bill 427 codifies the testing authorization of highly automated vehicles, with or without a human operator, and platooning with a human operator in each vehicle. This bill is currently in the Senate Transportation Committee.
- House Bill 1637 allows the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles and an on-demand autonomous vehicle network, without a human operator in both instances. This bill is currently in the House Transportation Committee.
- House Bill 1958 allows the deployment of highly automated work zone vehicles, with or without a human operator, and platooning with a human operator in each vehicle. This bill was unanimously approved by the House Transportation Committee on Jan. 23 and has been “laid on the table” in the House.
Whether any of these bills will pass, though, remains to be seen.
“It is difficult to assess the feasibility of passing this type of significant legislation since none of the above bills have passed either Chamber (Senate or House),” Ritchie said. “If none of the bills listed above are passed by the General Assembly in 2018 (2017-18 Session), new bills will have to be introduced in 2019 (2019-20 Session).”
In a PennDOT webcast Thursday, Jason Sharp, acting chief counsel for the department, said existing vehicle laws were passed decades ago, long before autonomous vehicles seemed possible on this scale. In order to move to vehicles that are truly autonomous, Sharp confirmed the need for legislative changes.
Uber knows well that self-driving research is as much about shaping the regulatory landscape as it is about refining the technology. In essence, new legislation is needed to make Khosrowshahi’s Davos vision a reality.
When reached for comment by The Incline about the illegality of unmanned vehicles in Pennsylvania and Khosrowshahi’s ambitions for the program, an Uber spokesperson offered the following: “We plan to continue our constructive dialogue with elected leaders and regulators in Pennsylvania as we chart the future of our self-driving technology.”
Meanwhile, PennDOT has been at least outwardly receptive to the idea of changes to Pennsylvania’s self-driving-relevant laws.
In an email to The Incline, PennDOT Communications Director Rich Kirkpatrick said the department is “open to and supportive of legislation being considered in the General Assembly that would allow for higher levels of automated vehicles on roads in Pennsylvania as well as appropriate provisions in legislation to ensure the safety of the general public, while containing sufficient flexibility to ensure that innovation can continue.”
“Our goal remains to encourage development of automated vehicle technology in Pennsylvania while ensuring the safety of the general public,” Kirkpatrick said, though his response did not directly address the issue of unmanned driverless vehicles.
But it’s unclear what kind of support the idea might have where it matters — inside the Pennsylvania Capitol — or how much pushback it will receive from safety advocates concerned about the broader implications.
In the meantime, maybe the only thing worth counting on is that companies like Uber will not sit idly by or resolve to wait and see.
A company long known for its willingness to see regulatory hurdles not as roadblocks but as obstacles capable of being overcome, Uber has continued to lobby for changes to pertinent Pennsylvania statutes. In the past, the company has not been shy about deploying its influence — and sharp elbows where needed — to affect this sort of change.
In Pennsylvania, the company remains actively involved in PennDOT’s Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force and in related talks with the Senate and House Transportation Committees, officials in Harrisburg confirm.
When sheer force of will fails, the company has been known to get creative. In fact, the inclusion of human backups in Uber’s self-driving cars was itself a workaround — or at least a compromise.
While it is currently illegal to test or deploy a highly sophisticated version of a driverless vehicle on public highways in Pennsylvania, Ritchie said Uber is legally testing a version of a driverless vehicle in Pittsburgh because they are conforming to the definition of a “driver,” which is defined as “a person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle.” As a result, their cars are out on public roadways collecting data and helping to configure necessary improvements.
But it’s obvious why the company isn’t satisfied, and why it now wants to remove humans — passengers not included — from the process altogether.
In the modern day space race that is autonomous vehicle testing, there is no shortage of urgency and no lack of competition.
Additionally, Uber’s competitors have already done it.
In October, Waymo, the autonomous vehicle division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and one of Uber’s fiercest competitors in the self-driving field, began operating its autonomous minivans on public roads in Arizona without a safety driver — or any human at all — behind the wheel, The Verge reports. (Uber is also testing driverless vehicles in Arizona but has yet to take human backups out.)
Investors.com called the move the “big self-driving milestone we’ve been waiting for.”