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Autonomous tech / Municipal government / Policies

When will Pennsylvania pass laws to allow for driverless cars?

Soon, according to Gov. Tom Wolf, though a lot of the concrete details remain unclear.

An Argo AI autonomous vehicle drives alongside a cyclist in Pittsburgh. (Courtesy photo)
A bill circulating in Pennsylvania’s state government could put fully driverless vehicles on the road, but its approval is lagging behind what industry leaders would like to see.

In January, state officials unveiled a legislation proposal that would allow for the testing of autonomous vehicles in Pennsylvania without a safety driver in the car — a key step that other states have already taken as the push for commercial launches from several companies operating in this space draws nearer. And at a recent panel event on the state of the autonomous vehicle industry hosted by the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, almost every executive there listed the lag in legislation as an issue keeping them up at night.

So where exactly does that bill stand, and how would it affect both public safety and the local economy?

“We’re actually working on making it legal to operate in Pennsylvania,” Argo AI cofounder and President Peter Rander said at the event last week. While all of the companies represented on the panel — Argo, Aurora, WaymoMotional and Locomation — have tests running in Pennsylvania, they all still have safety operators, which the panelists argued hinders research needed to fully integrate the cars safely and securely. “It’s kind of strange,” Rander continued. “Aren’t we supposed to be the place that’s supposed to be this hub of self-driving technology?”

In January, state officials unveiled a legislation proposal that would allow for the testing of autonomous vehicles in Pennsylvania without a safety driver in the car.

It’s a challenge at the forefront of a lot of the local industry leaders’ minds. Last fall, the Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania published a report detailing recommendations for everything Pittsburgh needs to do to secure its spot as a leader of the AV industry as competing markets persist. The first strategy goal listed in the report was to “advance a state level autonomy program to position the region for future growth.”

And while Gov. Tom Wolf gave the industry a pat on the back at the recent unveiling of Aurora’s new headquarters in the Strip District, it’s clear the corporations and startups working in this space want more. At that same event, he told local reporters he hoped to pass legislation approving the testing “soon.” To justify the money these companies have brought into Pittsburgh — around $5.5 billion in investments since 2019, comprising 72% of the total investments into the region over the past three years — it’s clear that there’s an expectation for more to be done on the legislation side to keep that cash flowing.

But the panelists at last week’s event also demonstrated an understanding that legislation for such a disruptive technology has come out of work that’s collaborative rather than combative.

“I think it’s super important to recognize the importance of the public sector in getting this right,” Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson said. Because of how many people this technology has the potential to affect, Urmson said it’s dire that all relevant parties work with each other and not against each other, at the local, state and federal level in addition to all of the regulatory bodies that go with them: “That kind of classic Silicon Valley [mindset] of holding them at arm’s length and hoping they don’t notice — I think that doesn’t work.”

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Pittsburgh Robotics Network / Aurora / Argo AI / State of Pennsylvania

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