When you walk into one of the new car dealerships in the State College area, you can buy an SUV, pick-up, a sedan, subcompact, van or sports car, but you can’t buy a self-driving vehicle at any price. No one is selling autonomous vehicles. Why? Though automakers and tech companies are working furiously to develop systems of sensors, cameras, radar and specialized automotive computers that will enable cars to pilot themselves, the technology is simply not ready to take over driving duties from humans.
Not ready yet
Even though the tech is not yet ready for prime time, self-driving vehicles are roaming Pennsylvania roads every day. Highly autonomous vehicles (HAV) are being tested by a variety of auto-tech companies on the same roads that state residents use to drive to work, shop and take their kids to school.
Good news: most of the testing has been done to the west of State College, in an area near Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, where autonomous vehicle tech has been under development for decades. The goals set for self-driving vehicles have never wavered over the years: elimination of auto accidents and traffic congestion, as well as bringing an end to the toxic pollution that’s unavoidably a result of fossil-fuel dependence.
Digging for news
Allentown’s Morning Call broke the story of the extensive road-testing with a Right-to-Know request that gained the newspaper access to information about eight companies reporting that they test HAVs in Pennsylvania.
Don’t assume that the companies are required to file detailed reports about what they do and where and when they do it, however. The reports are strictly voluntary, and the state has no laws or regulations limiting the tests to certain types of roads or specific traffic levels.
The state doesn’t ask the companies to reveal which levels of automation are being tested or even how many miles the vehicles travel. According to Morning Call, the state is most interested in knowing about driver training processes and what fire crews and tow truck operators should know if they’re called to the scene of an HAV crash.
The reports are deliberately bare-boned said Mark Kopko, director of PennDOT’s Office of Transformational Technology. He said the state doesn’t have the expertise needed to craft HAV regulations – and the companies are reluctant to share details anyway. “If you have good safety drivers and the appropriate safety culture if the technology does fail, you are most likely not putting that vehicle in any position where you could have any type of catastrophic failure.”
Let’s hope he’s correct and that Pennsylvania isn’t the site of any HAV collisions of the sort that have been reported in California, Arizona and Texas.