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When it comes to autonomous vehicles, there isn’t just one way to go about safety.
State regulators draft legislation. Independent firms create recommendations. Individual companies devise their own protocols.
And just last week, Pittsburgh-based self-driving car developer Argo AI announced the formation of an independent safety council designed to monitor the company’s practices.
Stakeholders can agree on one thing: Safety is important.
And as the Pennsylvania Senate prepares to consider legislation that could make it possible to conduct self-driving testing without a person behind the wheel, the issue is more important than ever.
Certain details about Argo AI’s committee remain murky. But as the technology advances and may soon be on Pittsburgh streets, experts agree any move to improve self-driving safety is a good thing.
“It’s always good to see an autonomous vehicle company getting independent advice because independence is absolutely essential for safety,” said Philip Koopman, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who has been active in the space since before self-driving vehicles existed.
Argo AI said the timing of its committee announcement was not related to forthcoming legislation. Nevertheless, things are moving forward. Earlier this summer, lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill intended to make the state more attractive to autonomous vehicle companies, as other states have begun to offer more relaxed laws around self-driving testing.
As it heads to the Pennsylvania Senate this fall, some lawmakers, including Wayne Langerholc Jr., the Republican head of the Senate Transportation Committee, hope the bill will finally let self-driving cars hit local roads — without a babysitter. (Langerholc did not respond to the Post-Gazette’s request for comment.)
This is already legal in some other states.
In Kansas, Koopman pointed out, the state Department of Transportation has little say on who tests on their roads; autonomous vehicle companies simply need to get approval from state police, who are rarely experts in the area.
“The laws in Pennsylvania are actually better than most of them,” he said.
Still, he has concerns.
Koopman believes Pennsylvania Senate Bill 965 does more for public safety than a previous version considered earlier this year but still not enough. One clause disallows local municipalities from adopting additional local restrictions, something Koopman thinks is unwise for Pittsburgh, the state’s self-driving capital.
Laws are primarily designed for vehicles with drivers, which makes updating codes to include self-driving cars tricky.
“It’s the stance of the commonwealth that if you look at the vehicle code as a whole, it implies that there’s a licensed driver sitting in the driver’s position that has the ability to take over control,” said Mark Kopko, director of transformational technology at PennDOT.
For now, PennDOT’s strategy for ensuring autonomous vehicle safety in the state involves “a lot of conversations.” The agency meets with developers and community stakeholders, and provides recommendations to companies operating in Pennsylvania.
When it comes to self-driving cars, PennDOT is just one player in a complex network of agencies making recommendations — some of which carry more weight than others. The National Transportation Safety Board conducts crash investigations, but its recommendations aren’t legally binding. And the Warrendale, Pa.-based SAE International created a safety standard for autonomous vehicle testing, but the onus is on individual companies to elect to follow them (Argo AI does).
Kopko applauded Argo AI’s decision to form an independent safety council.
Safety team assemble! The Argo Safety Advisory Council includes world-class experts and demonstrated leaders in transportation safety. Get to know them 1/7 pic.twitter.com/EHgnYwLO6c— Argo AI (@argoai) August 3, 2022
“Anytime you have a variety of different eyes looking at it, it’s only going to improve safety,” he said, although he noted he still hadn’t had the chance to “get into the specifics of what the council will be doing.”
Koopman noted the same. “There’s a bunch of ways this company could use this resource, and all of them are helpful,” he said. “The question is, what’s the role of this advisory committee?”
When asked about the work the council will be doing, Argo AI spokesperson Catherine Johnsmeyer explained: “They’ll advise and provide feedback for Argo to build on our efforts to maintain a world-class safety culture, earn public trust in autonomous vehicles, scale safely across multiple cities and countries, and responsibly launch and operate commercial driverless services.”
Robert Sumwalt (Transport Topics file photo)
In a public post on LinkedIn, council member and former NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt praised Argo AI’s openness. “No question is off limits,” he wrote. “I applaud their transparency and sincere willingness to improve.”
Other members include a former NTSB medical officer, a former FBI assistant director, former acting administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a former administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Koopman noted Sumwalt in particular had “an impeccable record for being an advocate for safety” and said NTSB as a whole responded well to the 2018 Uber ATG crash — a deadly incident between one of Uber’s automated test vehicles and a pedestrian in Arizona. An Argo AI car hasn’t been involved in an accident since 2018 when one was struck by a truck that ran a red light.
The council’s makeup is largely of people who have worked for transportation regulators rather than technologists or engineers with expertise designing autonomous vehicles.
“We designed the council to bring a variety of external perspectives with members who have safety expertise across transportation, law enforcement, medicine and cybersecurity,” said Johnsmeyer. “So while none have [autonomous vehicle] expertise per se, many of the members have past technical engineering experience from a variety of fields.”
Pittsburgh-based Aurora hauls freight for Werner, FedEx, Uber Freight and Schneider National. (Aurora via Twitter)
Autonomous trucking company Aurora, which also has a Pittsburgh headquarters, appointed a similar external advisory board in 2021, although the experts it appointed have a broader range of specialties, with several coming from the world of aviation.
The Argo council members’ experience working with regulators could serve the committee’s other aim well — building public trust in autonomous vehicles. “We believe that building trust with the public is just as important as actually delivering the technology,” Johnsmeyer said.
Overall, Pennsylvanians are still skeptical when it comes to self-driving vehicles, Kopko noted. But that could be changing. This spring, the agency conducted a survey in which, to Kopko’s surprise, respondents skewed more positive — something he credits to the presence of autonomous vehicle companies in the city.
We believe that building trust with the public is just as important as actually delivering the technology.
Argo AI's Catherine Johnsmeyer
“It was basically the inverse of the rest of the state,” he said, noting PennDOT will publish the full results of its surveys later this year. “People who are more exposed to the technology tend to have a more positive viewpoint.”
And if proponents of the proposed self-driving car legislation have their way, that exposure will only increase.
“The big thing that we always stress about automated vehicles is that there’s a lot of uncertainty about the direction of the industry and how things are going to go,” Kopko said. “But the best approach is to not do this in a vacuum.”
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