Pennsylvania set for transportation revolution

We’re in the midst of an explosion of activity related to the development of autonomous vehicle technology. What was once a figment of science fiction, self-driving cars — officially known as highly automated vehicles — are ready to make their mark in a big way, particularly here in Pennsylvania. Within the next 20 years, they will begin changing how we live, travel, do business, move goods, provide services, and keep our roads safe.

That’s why Gov. Tom Wolf and the administration are so involved in HAV development here — we are committed to facilitating these changes in the safest way possible.

Personally, I’ll admit that during my first HAV ride in Pittsburgh last year, it felt a little like driving with my teenager behind the wheel for the first time. I wasn’t prepared to fully hand over control of the vehicle to a computer. But I can assure you this — the technology is real, it’s rapidly improving, and it will change lives.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts saved close to 14,000 lives in 2015. For nearly four decades since seat belts were introduced, we haven’t seen similar leaps in safety technologies — but I have no doubt that HAVs are the next big innovation in safety since the advent of the seat belt.

At the state Department of Transportation, our core mission is to ensure the safety of the transportation system and those who use it. HAV technology promises a far safer transportation system than ever before. In 2016, 1,188 people lost their lives in vehicular crashes in Pennsylvania, and many more were gravely or permanently injured. Sadly, the vast majority of crashes were the result of human error. Automation will reduce and eventually replace the human element of driving with automated controls over vehicle operations.

Beyond safety, other benefits include greater mobility for the disabled and seniors who face challenges when they are no longer able to drive, others not licensed to drive or without access to a vehicle; better access to complementary transit services; greater fuel efficiency and reduced emissions; reduction in gridlock and congestion; and more efficient use of our already capacity-limited infrastructure.

At the same time, we must be mindful of public concerns, anxieties and real-world safety issues that arise as HAVs are tested, improved and introduced into mainstream use. PennDOT has been actively engaged in the process of helping to strike a careful balance between innovation and safety — to enable innovators here in Pennsylvania to do what they do best, while ensuring safety on our roads and a strong economy.

Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania is at the center of the automation revolution. Some of the best and brightest minds in research, development and engineering are situated at the world-class research institutions in the state — notably Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State. In fact, the world’s very first autonomous vehicle, a little six-wheeled character called the “Terregator,” was built at Carnegie Mellon in the 1980’s, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has named Penn State and the City of Pittsburgh as official HAV proving grounds — one of 10 such designations in the country.

Last year, PennDOT convened a task force of diverse stakeholders representing industry, government, academia and advocacy organizations to form the Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force. The task force operates as a collaborative, consensus-seeking group of experts to make recommendations for proper HAV on-road testing that balances innovation and safety. We are also working closely with legislators and their staff to craft legislation that will safely promote HAV testing and operation on Pennsylvania roadways.

We’re also reaching out to the public, enhancing public awareness and understanding of the potential benefits of this great and promising technology. As Secretary, I view public engagement critical component in shaping Pennsylvania’s transportation future. Last week, we joined with stakeholders to convene the first HAV Summit in State College to discuss regional and community planning efforts, workforce development needs, and other opportunities for Pennsylvanians as we seek to reap the maximum future benefits of the HAV technology revolution. Interacting with key stakeholders and the public is essential to successfully leveraging this incredible technology to benefit all Pennsylvanians.

HAVs will not only affect our safety on the road, how we get around, and move and transport goods — they will also profoundly change our daily lives, whether we are urban, rural or suburban Pennsylvanians. It will change our quality of life for the better — and PennDOT will be at the forefront of promoting safety and innovation in this coming era of vehicle automation.

Leslie S. Richards is Pennsylvania’s transportation secretary.