Pennsylvania joins states paving way for driverless vehicles

Pennsylvania is the latest state to allow driverless cars and trucks on the road, as the autonomous vehicle industry takes another step in its effort to prove commercial viability.
In this Jan. 16, 2019, file photo, Cruise AV, General Motor’s autonomous electric Bolt EV is displayed in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Pennsylvania is the latest state to allow driverless cars and trucks on the road, as the autonomous vehicle industry takes another step in its effort to prove commercial viability.

The Keystone State this month joined at least 20 other states that now explicitly allow either the testing or deployment of autonomous vehicles without a human operator. West Virginia and Oklahoma also approved laws this year.

“We’re at a moment in time where more state-level officials are beginning to think about what the future looks like in their state with AVs,” said Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association.

Historically, AV testing has been conducted with a human driver on board to take over if needed. But now, as the industry works to shift from proof of concept to commercial deployment, it must show the technology can work without a human safety net.

That is a key change in the new Pennsylvania law that Gov. Tom Wolf (D) signed earlier this month. Starting in July, the state will allow both cars and commercial vehicles to go driverless if certain conditions are met.

“This was an actual barrier to our deployment,” said Finch Fulton, the vice president of policy and strategy at Locomation, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based automated trucking company.

Locomation’s business model involves electronically pairing two 18-wheelers with a driver in the lead truck, but no driver behind the wheel in the second truck which follows close behind. The idea is that the second driver can be sleeping in the truck’s berth allowing the convoy to operate for up to 20 to 22 hours a day.

Locomation has been testing so-called truck platooning in Pennsylvania and Ohio and plans to expand to Indiana next year. Advocates of the technology say autonomous convoys are a way to make trucking more efficient and address driver shortages.

But as the Pennsylvania law moved through the General Assembly this fall, it drew heated opposition from the Teamsters union, which views a shift to autonomous vehicles as a threat to jobs and a potential safety hazard.

“The autonomous vehicle industry is spending billions of dollars to destroy good jobs, not to lobby for new technologies,” Teamsters president Sean O’Brien said in a statement in September. “America’s roads and highways are for public use, commerce, and real drivers — not unsafe corporate experiments fueled by greed.”

Despite that opposition, the Republican-sponsored measure won a handful of Democratic votes, including from Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D), plus the signature of the Democratic governor. Industry backers view passage of the Pennsylvania law as a potential breakthrough moment.

“With AV legislation expected to be introduced in state legislatures across the country in the new year, Pennsylvania’s move shows growing support for AVs with blue-state lawmakers,” said Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech industry group.

In a post-election memo, Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich predicted 2023 will bring a continued debate in New York State over AV testing and increased pressure on California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to approve rules for autonomous trucking.

California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Michigan are among the hot spots for automated driving systems testing, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tracking tool.

In Arizona, for example, Google’s autonomous ride-hailing firm Waymo is operating in downtown Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert, according to the company. It also has a demonstration project underway in San Francisco.

And in the Houston area, a California-based robotics company called Nuro is using an autonomous electric vehicle to deliver groceries and pizzas.

But autonomous vehicle companies and policymakers who support the industry still face a largely skeptical public. A survey earlier this year by AAA found that 85% of consumers “are fearful or unsure of self-driving technology” — a figure that mirrors past surveys.

Just this week, a Zoox autonomous car with a safety driver on board crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer near the Las Vegas strip, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

While automated vehicles have been involved in high-profile crashes, and even fatalities, industry advocates highlight the potential for the technology to save lives, noting that more than 40,000 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes each year in the U.S.

“We are very much in support of it, particularly technologies that are advanced and would take the driver out of the equation for safety reasons,” said Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In Pennsylvania, where automated vehicle testing has been underway for more than a decade, the new law allowing driverless vehicles is being heralded as a key next step toward industry viability.

“We don’t want to stifle innovation, but it should never come at the cost of safety,” said Mark Kopko, director of transformational technology at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “We thought this was a good balance.”

Kopko said he expects the majority of the seven companies that currently have authorization to test automated vehicles in Pennsylvania to pursue a certificate to operate driverless vehicles.

Industry forecasts suggest the global autonomous vehicle market is poised for significant growth over the current decade.

But challenges abound. Last month, Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, an autonomous vehicle company backed by Ford and Volkswagen, announced it was shutting down.

In a report this month, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia predicted that fully driverless vehicles may be commercially available in some places by the late 2020s, but won’t be “common and affordable” until the 2040s to 2060s.