Autonomous Vehicle Regulations in PA

With automated cars a seeming inevitability, many states and the federal government are trying to get ahead in the process of regulating how they will work. While the federal government is leading the way in providing guidance for how automated vehicles should work, states like Pennsylvania seem to be trying to ensure that self-driving car manufacturers feel comfortable testing their products in the area.

Regulations have struggled to predict how autonomous will work and what could go wrong with them, slowing the process of regulating them. Additionally, regulators have seemed reluctant to press for stringent requirements from autonomous vehicle creators, probably out of fear that it would deter them from making cars that are supposed to revolutionize transportation. Unfortunately, that reluctance can put people at risk because not enough steps are being taken to make sure companies do not shrug off the dangers they will be putting people into.

Federal Guidelines Through the NHTSA

As the major federal agencies dealing with road safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation are on the front lines of the push to regulate self-driving cars. Currently, much of this impetus has come in the form of voluntary guidelines rather than binding regulations, largely because of how hypothetical the problems still are.

But even those voluntary guidelines stress the competing goals the agencies face to keep everyone safe while still letting businesses run as freely as possible. In the most recent federal guidance on self-driving cars, Automated Driving Systems (ADS): A Vision for Safety 2.0, the agencies openly admit to those conflicting goals in the executive summary: “The Federal Government wants to ensure it does not impede progress with unnecessary or unintended barriers to innovation. Safety remains the number one priority…”

In spite of the second sentence, at this point it looks like the federal government's number one priority is to let businesses run the show by not creating “unnecessary or unintended barriers to innovation.” That is why the guidelines are completely voluntary and only serve to point self-driving car makers to important and often obvious safety considerations, like:

  • Detecting potential hazards outside the car
  • Cybersecurity
  • Crashworthiness of the vehicle
  • Recording data about the vehicle's progress
  • What the vehicle does, after a crash

A subsequent packet of voluntary guidelines from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0, focused on reminding states and cities that their regulations could be trumped by federal laws.

The actively hands-off approach so far is disconcerting, as businesses pursuing novel ways of doing things have a poor track record of considering the safety of the public. Without a requirement that companies comply with the guidance or an enforcement mechanism, the guidelines are largely irrelevant. Letting for-profit companies like Google's Waymo, Uber, and traditional car companies like Toyota dictate the progress of autonomous vehicles is a great way to get innocent people hurt in ways that are both unnecessary and entirely preventable.

Still No Overarching Federal Law

A recent attempt by Congress to pass a federal law ended up failing, continuing to leave a vacuum where important safety regulations for self-driving cars could have been.

However, the demise of the Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act, or the AV Start Act, was not all a bad thing for keeping self-driving cars safe. Many vehicle safety advocates had come out against the bill after noting that it did not require self-driving cars to meet all of the current safety standards for cars. As if to prove that the AV Start Act was a business-friendly bill that did not put due importance on safety concerns, many of the companies rushing to produce self-driving cars lamented that the law did not pass.

Until Congress steps forward and passes an overarching self-driving car law, it is up to the states and even to local cities to come up with the answers.

State Laws in Pennsylvania Governing Autonomous Vehicles

Pennsylvania has passed two laws related to autonomous vehicles. Neither one of them, though, makes much of a difference in the regulatory structure that will be needed to make sure self-driving cars are safe. Instead, both laws have been fundamental, but still small, preliminary steps towards settings those eventual regulations.

Senate Bill 1267, which was passed in 2016, tweaked some definitions in the traffic code to better allow local governments to react to traffic hazards within their borders. More importantly for self-driving vehicles, though, SB 1267 opened the doors to use some of the $40 million the state of Pennsylvania had set aside for upgrading traffic lights to develop “intelligent transportation system applications, such as autonomous and connected vehicle-related technology.” While far from the most interesting aspects of self-driving cars, making sure that stop lights work for autonomous vehicles is a hugely important part of the process.

Additionally, House Bill 1958, which passed in 2018, defined some important terms in the field of automated driving, expressly allowed for testing self-driving cars in the state, and set up an advisory board to investigate the issue of self-driving cars and determine how best to regulate them.

The terms that HB 1958 defined were:

  • Highly Automated Work Zone Vehicle. An automated vehicle that is used in an active work zone for testing and driving self-driving cars. These “active work zones” for self-driving vehicles could be authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation or the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on a periodic basis to create a controlled environment to test self-driving vehicles.
  • Platoon. A group of up to three vehicles traveling at “electronically coordinated speeds.” These platoons could use highways in Pennsylvania and would be exempt from abiding by traffic rules that require safe following distances. Additionally, each vehicle in the platoon would have to be prominently marked as a “platoon vehicle,” and would have to have a human driver inside. People and companies could apply to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to run a platoon, implicitly nodding towards a future where self-driving cars “link” on their way to a destination.

Perhaps more importantly, HB 1958 created the Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Committee within the Department of Transportation. This 21-person committee includes the secretaries of the following state agencies in Pennsylvania:

  • Department of Transportation
  • Community and Economic Development
  • Labor and Industry

As well as the following commissioners and politicians:

  • The Insurance Commissioner
  • The Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner
  • The CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
  • Both the chairperson and the minority chairperson of the Senate's Transportation Committee
  • Both the chairperson and the minority chairperson of the House of Representatives' Transportation Committee

Plus 11 people appointed by the governor who are supposed to represent public and private interests that could be affected by self-driving cars, like:

  • A car insurance representative
  • Someone from one of the companies developing self-driving cars
  • A representative for bicyclists, pedestrians, or motorcycles
  • Someone representing regular drivers or consumers

The Committee is required to meet at least three times per year, with the minutes of those meetings becoming a public record, and has the power to:

  • Develop technical guidance
  • Evaluate best practices
  • Review existing laws, regulations, and policies for self-driving vehicles
  • Research and evaluate automated driving technology “to ensure safe testing, deployment and continued innovation” in Pennsylvania

Every year, the Committee is required to provide an annual report of its progress and activities. That report is supposed to be posted on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's website.

Regulations by the Department of Transportation

So far, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has issued little guidance on the issue of self-driving cars beyond establishing how they can be tested in the state. The Department requires applications before autonomous vehicle testing can be done, and has created a task force to explore the potential problems raised by self-driving vehicles, but has gone little further.

Self-Driving Car Lawyers in Philadelphia at Gilman & Bedigian

Self-driving cars seem to be an inevitable part of the future in Philadelphia. However, and in spite of the continued insistence by lawmakers that they want to stay ahead of the curve on the issue, regulations that could keep automated vehicles safe are already lagging behind. If uncorrected, the problem could turn from a hypothetical issue into a very real one if self-driving cars begin to hit the streets in large numbers without the necessary rules and regulations in place.

Should this happen, the people who are going to suffer the most are innocent bystanders, pedestrians, bikers, and drivers. If they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and get hurt by a self-driving car that was made and maintained by a company that thought it permissible to cut corners and put the public at risk, the victim deserves compensation, and the company needs to be held accountable.

The personal injury lawyers at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian are ready to do just that. By representing you in court for the injuries you suffered at the hands of a self-driving car, we can ensure you get the compensation you need and deserve, and that the company takes the interests of the public seriously. Contact us online.

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