Auto-Uber in the Steel City: While Pittsburgh Hosts Uber’s Autonomous Vehicle Testing, PA Pushes for New Laws

September 26, 2016

On September 14th, Uber unveiled its first self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, PA.  So, you’re ready to pick up your phone and order up one these automated Ubers to whisk you away to the Steelers game.  Picture yourself cruising up to Heinz Field just like Knight Rider (the David Hasselhoff version, of course).  Well, pump those automated brakes because, for now, you’ll be picked up by an automated Uber complete with a huge and very un-sexy rooftop camera system and the only thing talking to you will be the (entirely human) test driver.  As it turns out, Pittsburgh is just the testing grounds for Uber’s self-driving vehicle project.
Why Pittsburgh, you ask?  Unlike places such as California, Pennsylvania is currently regulation free when it comes to automated vehicles.  What’s more, under the current laws, anyone with a valid driver’s license can operate an automated vehicle (your friendly test driver).  “As long as there is a licensed driver in the driver’s seat operating the vehicle, they do not need to be touching the steering wheel,” said Kurt Myers, the deputy secretary for Driver and Vehicle Services for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
But Uber has faced its share of roadblocks, even in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania requires that any new business planning to charge the general public for transportation services first secure proper authority from the state Public Utility Commission before beginning the service.  The PUC has already fined Uber almost $11.4 million for operating its everyday ride-sharing program without agency approval in 2014.  And, up to this point, the PUC has not authorized any use of fully autonomous vehicles for transportation services.
Which brings us back to your trip to Heinz Field.  You won’t get to ride in KITT, but at least your human-laden test ride will be free.  That’s right, Uber still can’t operate its autonomous ride sharing program without approval from the PUC, but it can test drive them.  And you can ride along, as long as Uber doesn’t charge any money.  Uber is limiting this privilege to some of its regular users, giving them the option of paying for a standard Uber or electing a free, autonomous one.
Despite the rough start to their relationship, the city of Pittsburgh and the State of Pennsylvania welcome Uber’s presence.  In fact, the testing project has garnered open support from Pittsburgh Mayor, Bill Peduto.  Government officials join Uber in praising the new technology.  Uber’s goal is to use this testing to help develop a fully autonomous vehicle, one that has been considered “Full Self-Driving Automation” by the NHTSA (unlike Google’s self-driving car, which was only considered “Limited Self-Driving Automation).  All parties seem to agree that Uber’s new technology could provide many benefits for Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania as a whole, such as: reductions in emissions and traffic, economic growth, and a drastic decline in the number of deaths from automotive accidents.
PA lawmakers have been working for months to jump-start legislation that would set the stage for autonomous vehicle testing, specifically providing for Full Self-Driving Automation.  In fact, two such bills are already under review in Pennsylvania’s Senate Transportation Committee and House Rules Committee.

They all want Uber in Pittsburgh, they just want Uber to play by the rules.  Unfortunately, no one has known exactly what those rules are.

But it looks like that’s all about to change.  Last week, the NHTSA released a new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.  The new Policy sets forth guidelines rather than regulations, and acts as a framework for future state and federal actions.  The Policy adopts the SAE International definitions for automation (under which Uber’s car would be considered “High Automation”).  “The guidelines clearly demonstrate the federal government’s support for driverless cars, and serve as a regulatory blueprint to ‘accelerate the HAV [highly autonomous vehicle] revolution’ safely and consistently across the nation.”  To this end, the Policy lays out a “Model State Policy”, the goal of which “is to avoid having 50 different, competing sets of rules for driverless cars between states.”  However, some facets of regulation, like accident liability, are left entirely up to state discretion.
These new guidelines couldn’t come soon enough for Pennsylvania lawmakers.  In June, Pennsylvania took the initiative to set up an Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force.  The Task Force is led by the Pennsylvania DOT and is made up of state, federal and private-industry officials who are collaborating to guide PennDOT’s eventual policies.  The Task Force has been waiting for additional input from the NHTSA’s new guidelines, and is expected to release official policy recommendations in November.  If all goes well, and Pennsylvania’s pending bills become law, the state “will have implementation guidelines ready to roll.”  This would be a huge accomplishment for Pennsylvania, likely placing the state out in front in the race toward vehicular autonomy.
Don’t worry my futuristic-minded friends, the self-driving car will be coming soon(ish) to a city near you.