With new law on books, Pennsylvania aims to be a vanguard of autonomous vehicle technology, officials say | Watchdog.org

With new law on books, Pennsylvania aims to be a vanguard of autonomous vehicle technology, officials say
By Dave Lemery | Watchdog.org 18 hrs ago

Pennsylvania state Rep. Greg Rothman, accompanied by Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary
 Leslie Richards (left), talks Nov. 20 about autonomous vehicle technology at a news conference to discuss
the recent signing of House Bill 1958.

Not content to bask in the glow of their legislative victory last month, supporters of self-driving vehicle technologies in Pennsylvania are already moving forward on their plans to make the state a hotbed for the still-embryonic industry.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last month signed House Bill 1958, sponsored by Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Camp Hill, which establishes a number of guidelines and practices for the use of automated vehicles in work zones and platooning of motor carrier vehicles.

Rothman and Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards took part in a news conference this week with the Autonomous Vehicle Coalition in which they talked about what those provisions mean and the potential long-term impact of HB1958, now on the books as Act 117 of 2018.

Rothman said even more proposals related to autonomous vehicles should be expected in the next legislative session as the state looks to stay on the cutting edge.

"It's fascinating what's going on in this field and this industry," he said. "We are hoping that this also helps with the brain drain in Pennsylvania, attracts young people when they find out that Pennsylvania is a leader in autonomous vehicle technology and a leader in using technology to improve our lives. And I expect we will have even more activity on the legislative front in the next session."

According to Rothman and PennDOT Executive Director Mark Compton, the work zone portion of the new law relates to the use of “attenuators” by work zone crews that provide some protection in case a traveling vehicle plows into the work zone.

“The attenuator is the vehicle at the end of a work zone that – it looks like an accordion, you may recognize it now, you'll recognize when you see it there,” Rothman said. “I think there are 75 or so in the fleet that are used. And right now, someone has to sit in that attenuator, driving it or waiting for it to move.”

Rothman said that Royal Truck & Equipment has designed an attenuator that works in an automated fashion, meaning that highway workers will be protected without any one of them having to sit inside the vehicle. Now, thanks to Act 117, PennDOT is empowered to make use of such vehicles.

“Platooning” is the practice of multiple transport vehicles sharing information while traveling down the highway so that if one experiences a slowdown or other hazard, the other vehicles in the platoon, with computer assistance, can respond appropriately ahead of time. The platooned vehicles would still have human drivers but could help to prevent large-scale highway accidents.

“With conventional trucks, critical risk factors are driver reaction time and concentration,” Rothman wrote in a memo to his fellow lawmakers when he introduced HB1958. “Indeed, some 94 [percent] of all traffic accidents are due to human error. Platooning technology reacts in as little as 30 milliseconds compared to 1-1.5 seconds for human reaction.”

The law limits the number of vehicles in a single platoon to three, and they can only operate on Pennsylvania’s highways. The vehicles in the platoon will be allowed to follow one another at a much closer distance than is generally allowed by state law, improving aerodynamics and reducing fuel costs.

Richards said that Pennsylvania was already seen nationally as a leader on automated vehicle technology even before the passage of Act 117, and its implementation will allow the state to reinforce that status.

“We're also working on the first ever of its kind test track in coordination with the Turnpike Commission, Federal Highway Administration and Penn State,” she said. “Those plans are in development right now, and we will have a very high level, again, one-of-a-kind test track where we can test a lot of these vehicles, we can do high speed interchange movements. We're looking at emergency response vehicles as well as work zone vehicles, and we're really excited we have a good head start on that and that will be coming as well.”

Asked about concerns related to the safety of automated vehicles, Rothman argued that they’re going to improve safety in the years to come. The safety issue came to the forefront this year after an automated vehicle being tested by Uber hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. Media reports indicate Uber is preparing to resume testing in the Pittsburgh area.

“We already rely on machines,” Rothman said. “And most of our cars you're driving today are operated by computers. So, the question is, can you respond as quickly? Can you react as quickly as a computer? And the answer is no, you can't.”

Dave Lemery is the Pennsylvania & New Hampshire News Editor for Watchdog.org. He welcomes your comments. Contact Dave at dlemery@watchdog.org.

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.

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