Friday, January 13, 2017

My input to PennDOT on self-driving car policy document

Yesterday, 12 January 2017, was the deadline to submit input to PennDOT on their proposed policy document for guidelines for R&D concerning self-driving cars, a.k.a. Highly Automated Vehicles (HAVs). A good many of us in the transportation community only found out about this on the last day, so had zero time to do much analysis and still attend to our day jobs.

Nevertheless, I took a few minutes to scan through the 96-page document, study who put it together, and employ a search tool to look for text strings like "bicycl", "horse", "motorc", and "wheelchair". They mention motorcades, but not motorcycles, I noticed. The developing board kindly included General Motors, but everyone there saw the world through a windshield. That was all I needed to know. So in a mere 10 minutes, I composed the following:

As preface, I am an ordinary citizen who commutes about 10 miles each way to an office job in downtown Pittsburgh from a single-family residence in the suburbs. I regularly make this trip by bicycle, and have many times encountered one of the Uber vehicles in traffic, often directly behind me.

In short, I have had no trouble at all with the Uber vehicles in Pittsburgh. I wish I could say the same for human operated cars.

My concern with the policy document is that bicycles get only a single mention, in the introductory paragraph. Nor is there any representation on the developing board of anyone from the at-risk communities: motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, horseback, motorized wheelchairs, among others. I was hoping for a more direct inclusion of those communities in the development of a policy document.

With regard to bicycles, Pittsburgh has a well defined cycling community, both at the representational level in Bike-Pgh, and various members who communicate with one another both in social media and in real life, and whose input could be helpful to anyone analyzing HAVs. Some mechanism to reach out to either or both for their input would be worth a mention. Ditto for other well populated areas of the state. If you did have this, and used that information, it would be a bragging point after all the work is done and these get official recognition. Not having it is opening yourselves to future criticism.

I have no serious objections to the rest of the document. I just want to make sure you are including all road users in your policy development, not just cars.


  1. Self-driving vehicles are OK, imho. But the people developing policy for how they should work should include those who do anything other than drive. That's not happening. That's not good.

  2. Even worse, I get a not-so-vague sense that self driving cars are intended to be a replacement for public mass transit - or will be used to ram such a program down our throats. The negative consequences for the environment and public urban spaces should be obvious.

    BTW my main local transportation here 9 months out of the year and a fair number of days in-between is a battery electric motor scooter (top speed 65 mph and range of 50 miles). The Ann Arbor MI manufacturer of it unfortunately went out of business. The idea of 2-wheels for day to day transportation simply cannot catch on in the US. I use the bus for going downtown and the airport and a few other places. I have a car but only for out of town trips - which is to say it can sit unused for a month or more.

    (btw I'm Paul D. Steve D's brother)

  3. Likely, eventually, yes. Ten, 20 years out, bus drivers should worry about finding employment. This isn't about HAVs themselves, though, rather the PennDOT policy document guiding their development.

    If we're worried about robots taking over driving jobs, we also need to worry about robots taking over *every* job. It's just easier to see this one coming.

  4. Stuart,

    Actually, I was thinking that in driverless cars will be the excuse to get rid of public transit itself, not just the drivers, notably street-level surface public transit. The idea will be "Why do you need a bus? Just hail an autonomous car on your smartphone". Maybe they will give a little fare subsidy to the poor.

    It had been hoped since the 1950s that the car itself would accomplish this (by the car manufacturers, oil companies, suburban RE developers).

    The external costs such as increased CO2 emissions and pedestrian/bike/MC hostile urban spaces. AVs will be capable of capable of driving in "crazy" modes - bumper-touching bumper and continuous-choreagraphed cross flow through intersections without traffic lights. Anything that gets in the way of this profitable vision for business interests will be banned or rendered impractical or dangerous.

  5. People will hack autonomous car software, some altruistically and some malevolently. Be prepared for insane (autonomous) stunt driving.

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