PennDOT wants to test driverless cars

PennDOT has applied to make Pennsylvania a testing ground for a pilot federal project designed to prepare for the kind of self-driving cars. “We submitted a very thorough application detailing our safety standards,” said Pocono the Raceway President and CEO Brandon Igdalsky.

Pennsylvania’s interest comes in response to a U.S. Department of Transportation request for applicants to be designated as an Automated Vehicle Proving Ground for a federally run project to study a technology that’s already here. Companies such as Tesla, Ford, and BMW have signaled that automated cars are going to be the future of motor vehicles in the years to come.

Automated vehicle companies can legally test self-driving vehicles on Pennsylvania’s roads now without special permission. However, as of now, Pennsylvania law does require that someone occupy the driver’s seat while the vehicle is in use.

Pocono Raceway officials say their 2.5-mile, three-turn track is the perfect place to test this emerging technology in the state. Nicknamed the Tricky Triangle for its unusual configuration, the raceway, infield and parking areas can be transformed into a variety of tracks that can challenge even the most sophisticated computers.

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that more than 90 percent of accidents are due to human error or human choices and many believe that when you remove that element from the equation, you make driving safer.

John Schubert, a member of the Lehigh Valley Coalition for Appropriate Transportation and a member of a national task force on autonomous vehicles, says that he will need to see a lot of data before he’s convinced that self-driving cars are as adept at detecting bicyclists and pedestrians as they do cars and trucks. He is also hopeful that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Pennsylvania will take their time in making sure that they do.

Hundreds of people die every day because of human error and Schubert believes that eventually, the computer will do fewer stupid things than humans. Scientists say autonomous cars can even help move traffic along more quickly because they have the ability to talk with other self-driving cars to detect upcoming signals and congestion zones, enabling them to choose alternate routes on the fly.

PennDOT has a task force that’s been studying the issue since last June and it has designated a safety officer to comply with the federal pilot. It is unclear how soon Penn DOT will know if Pennsylvania will be chosen for the pilot, but the federal guidelines require that each testing facility is ready by Jan. 1, 2018.

State officials say, if chosen, PennDOT will oversee the pilot in Pennsylvania, but private companies testing the cars, such as Uber, will work directly with the testing facilities.


This article was last updated on January 19, 2017.