Self-driving vehicles

PennDOT has a plan for autonomous vehicle testing in Pennsylvania until the laws change

Also: Pennsylvania’s getting a new test track by 2020.

The "headgear" of Uber's newest self-driving vehicles.

The "headgear" of Uber's newest self-driving vehicles.

Jared Wickerham / for the incline
MJ Slaby

The Incline’s MJ Slaby will provide live updates of the conference here, so be sure to check back for updates. Tweet at her with any questions you might have.


Original article:

State leaders and autonomous vehicle experts are in town today and Tuesday for a two-day summit about the technology.

It’s the 2018 Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit and comes three weeks after Uber paused its autonomous testing, including in Pittsburgh, following a fatal crash in Arizona. This is the second Pa. AV Summit, but the first in Pittsburgh. The inaugural summit was in State College, Pa. in September 2017.

Safety is high on the agenda with ” ‘Ensuring Automated Vehicle Safety’ — How are automated vehicles made safe?” as one of today’s first panels.

Other topics for the two-day event at the Downtown DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel and Suites include workforce opportunities, the legal landscape when it comes to self-driving vehicles and which groups can benefit from the technology.

Local speakers include experts from Carnegie Mellon University, Community College of Allegheny County and Edge Case Research, as well as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

On Tuesday, PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards will have a “fireside chat” with Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora Innovation, as well as a CMU alumnus and previous assistant professor.

Check out the full agenda here.


11:18 a.m. Monday update:

The state’s second Automated Vehicle Summit kicked off this morning with a call for collaboration.

The conversations at this summit will “forge a common understanding of how to advance” this technology, said Roger Cohen, a senior advisor at PennDOT, noting that the 400 attendees represent fields from government and industry to academia and more.

Here’s what’s being said at the summit.

Federal involvement

Congressman-elect Conor Lamb spoke at the summit’s welcome session to advocate for more federal funding for scientific research. Lamb, of the 18th District, said while there are areas for compromise in Congress, research funding isn’t one of them.

PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards later added that the state department will look to the state congressional delegation to make a safety checklist mandatory for testers and give states more control over roadway testing.

A new Pa. action plan

Richards outlined a new action plan following a fatal accident in Arizona to give the department interim oversight until state legislation can be put in place. That plan includes a meeting between Richards and testers, as well as the return of the PennDOT Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force.

But most notably, the plan also includes PennDOT asking testers for a slew of information including about the vehicles, operators, testing routes and more. PennDOT created the list to be proactive, and it comes from previous task force discussions and more meetings, Richards said later in a news conference.

Currently, testers are not required to submit information to the state. Richards acknowledged that testers won’t be required to submit that information, but said she expects them to do so.

Submitting the information is voluntary, but it could be later required by legislation, she said, adding that it’s in the best interest of testers and the industry to work with the public. However there’s no hard timeline for the action plan. Richards said the task force will resume within 60 to 90 days, and by then, her meeting with testers should be set as well.

Safety and vehicle operators

Being a safety driver (also known as a vehicle operator) is arguably more difficult that being a normal driver, said Philip Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics safety expert. Instead of just reacting like a normal driver, the vehicle operator has to learn and know what the autonomous vehicle “knows,” give the autonomous vehicle time to react and then react when it isn’t responding correctly.

Koopman questioned if there is a enough time for the operators to react in those scenarios. He posed other questions about safety drivers including how they are trained, how alert they are, how they perform on the roads, and if the automated vehicle disengagement actually works.


1:23 p.m. Monday update:

Questions after the Arizona fatal crash

In a discussion focused on ensuring self-driving vehicle safety, panelists discussed their first industry-related questions after learning about the fatal crash involving an autonomous Uber in Arizona.

Once the National Transportation Safety Board investigation is complete, there can be a more robust conversation about what happened, said Ann Shikany, manager of the autonomous vehicle coalition for National Safety Council. It will, however, be interesting to see if Uber will share what it learns so all self-driving cars can improve, she said.

Mike Wagner, CEO of Edge Case Research, a safety-focused firm in Pittsburgh, agreed, saying he’s interested in how quickly the industry will be able to learn from what happened and adjust.

On the public safety side, Pa. State Police Lt. Brian Ianuzzi, stressed that a fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle was “bound to happen, and it will happen again.” He said that he was initially interested in how Pa. state police reconstructionists will be prepared if something similar happens in Pa.

Public education on self-driving cars

“It’s really hard to be confident when you’re scared, and anything that’s unknown is pretty scary,” Shikany said on the safety panel. She said the goal is decreasing the unknown factor through various forms of outreach from community meetings to summits like this one to meeting with local government. She said outreach to build relationships should start early to answer questions about how the autonomous vehicles work and how they impact communities. Educating the public isn’t about preparing them for more crashes, it’s about how they interact with the technology.

But during the Q&A session, Laura Wiens of Pittsburghers for Public Transit spoke up to say that there are more issues that need to be addressed from traffic congestion to mobility to access, privacy and jobs. She said the fears are real and there are concerns that local government isn’t doing enough.

Shikany responded by saying she hopes public discussions will address those concerns.


3:46 p.m. Monday update:

Wanted: Auto technicians

There’s a need for auto technicians, said Robert Koch, department chair of the occupational trade programs at Community College of Allegheny County, and John Devlin, president of the Pa. Automotive Association.

But the challenge is attracting students and getting them to think of it as a career, Koch said.

Auto technician jobs are well-paying careers in science and math, Devlin said. “A car is a computer, and we need to be able to service those and maintain them.” And that’s only going to be more true as autonomous vehicles evolve.

Plus, autonomous vehicles are an emerging technology, so that means there aren’t many people who have worked in it before, said Abigail Loughrey, autonomous vehicle operations manager for self-driving vehicle company Aurora Innovation. When Aurora is interviewing, one of the biggest things they look for is the ability to solve complicated problems, she said, adding that’s not easy to find as a skill on LinkedIn.

When it comes to current technicians looking to continue their careers, it’s about looking at transferable skills for jobs that didn’t exist before, added Joe Kane, a senior research associate and associate fellow at the Brookings Institution. So if that means someone has to take a short class, then they need to do so, because being an auto technician is an evolving industry, Koch added.

But Loughrey stressed that current auto technicians have the skills needed — it’s more about having a mindset for growth.


4:48 p.m. Monday update: 

Unions’ approach

Thinking about the future of work and labor transitions is nothing new for Brad Markell, executive director of the Industrial Union Council at AFL-CIO.

But it’s a conversation about tasks, not occupations, he said. If a task becomes automated, it doesn’t mean the job goes away, just that the tasks of that job have changed. And that’s where soft skills come in to help with that change.

That conversation about shifting the focus on skills so graduates can meet employers’ needs is also happening at the Pa. State System of Higher Education, added Sue Mukherjee, an assistant vice chancellor at the system.

Markell said he’s not concerned about the number of jobs, but about the quality of jobs after automated vehicles.


11:45 a.m. Tuesday, final update:

Trustworthy companies

Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at University of South Carolina School of Law, said he knows there’s a lot of discussion about the public’s lack of trust in companies. But he wanted to talk about how companies can earn trust in the first session of the Pa. AV Summit on Tuesday.

People already put a lot of trust in companies and their products, he said, giving the examples of trusting a car to work without reading the owner’s manual or riding in an Uber or Lyft without knowing the driver’s record.

Walker Smith outlined his tips for companies to earn public trust:

  • Keep promises.
  • Act competently.
  • Manage public expectations.
  • Market only what the company considers “reasonably safe.”
  • Have sufficient evidence for those safety beliefs, update that evidence and adjust on those updates.
  • Mitigate harm when the tech fails. That means avoiding NDA agreements, he said.

Adding a test track

A new transportation test track is coming to Pennsylvania, Richards announced.

PennDOT, the Pa. Turnpike Commission and Penn State University are partnering to create PennSTART, the Pennsylvania Safety, Transportation and Research Track. The search for a location is underway and a decision is expected over the next year for a 2020 open, per the track’s website.

The track will be a place to research and study intelligent transportation systems technology and automated vehicles, as well as work zones and traffic incident management and more, Richards said.

What will happen in a decade?

If there’s one thing that’s known, it’s that there are a lot of unknowns, Richards said. But, that didn’t stop her from asking Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora Innovation, what his predictions for 2028 are.

There will be a broad deployment of self-driving vehicles, Urmson said. He added that deployment will start with transportation networks, including first-mile, last-mile shuttles. And hopefully, that will also mean there will be a way for transportation to be less of a drain on state budgets.

Other predictions from Urmson: Companies doing this work will consolidate into just a handful, and road fatalities will be down by 5 to 10 percent. “It’s going to be a pretty exciting place in 2028.”

But will PennDOT still need to issue driver’s licenses in 2028? Richards asked.

Yes, Urmson said, that change will take at least 25 years.

Is this legal?

“Are self-driving cars legal?” It’s a question that Jason Sharp, chief counsel for PennDOT, gets all the time.

It’s not so easy to answer.

The vehicle codes were written at least 30 to 40 years ago and have more references to animals (seven or nine) than to automated vehicles (zero), he said. But one way approach the legality is that since it’s not mentioned as illegal, it’s legal. So the answer is probably.

But that’s why legislation would make it more clear, Sharp said. Yet there are multiple questions about how the vehicle codes could change. The current code focuses on ownership and what owners are responsible for — but what happens with self-driving vehicles that are shared?

Other questions are about land use, public safety and more, he said.