Hodgepodge Of Self-Driving Vehicle Laws Raises Safety Concerns

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The free rides in self-driving cars that Uber began offering in Pittsburgh Wednesday wouldn’t be allowed in California.

In Michigan, legislators are considering changing a law that requires a safety driver to be behind the wheel of self-driving vehicles to handle unexpected or emergency situations.

A Chicago alderman wants to ban them completely.

And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is still developing guidelines for states to consider when writing their laws for self-driving vehicles. Pennsylvania’s Autonomous Vehicle Task Force is waiting for those guidelines before it releases its own recommendations to the Legislature in November.

That hodgepodge of standards for self-driving vehicles is raising concerns among consumer groups and safety experts who say the laws are lagging behind the technology that is fueling the race among a handful of companies developing autonomous vehicles. The lack of strong rules is causing some to question the safety of Uber beginning to carry non-paying passengers.

Uber became the first in the U.S. to begin public use of self-driving cars in the U.S. Wednesday when it began offering free rides to regular customers in the Downtown and Strip District area. A company in Singapore began deploying self-operating taxis in a 2.5-square-mile area last month.

“We need to have some real safety standards in place,” said John Simpson, private project director for California-based Consumer Watchdog. “It seems to me you are endangering the public by allowing Uber to operate with passengers in the vehicle and no rules for safety or transparency for the public to see their safety record.”

Uber couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday, but at a media event Tuesday to demonstrate its self-driving vehicles the company said it is important to do “live testing” with passengers to continue developing the technology. It says it has a safety driver and a technician in the front seat of its self-driving Ford Fusions for safety reasons.

The state Public Utility Commission issued a statement Thursday calling for “vigorous public discussion” on rules for self-driving vehicles. Uber can operate its self-driving vehicles with passengers as long as it doesn’t charge a fee, but it would need PUC approval once it begins charging.

“Any business offering transportation services to the general public for compensation must secure proper authority from the PUC before beginning that service, and clearly demonstrate the technical ability to operate safely,” the PUC statement said. “To date, no entity has applied for such authority in Pennsylvania, and the Commission has not authorized any use of fully autonomous vehicles for transportation services that fall under the jurisdiction of the PUC.”

Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesman for the PUC, said the agency is having “on-going discussions” with Uber. Uber has run afoul of the PUC in the past, and two weeks ago the agency affirmed an $11.4 million fine against Uber for not receiving agency approval before providing paid rides in vehicles with drivers.

Kurt Myers, co-chairman of the state task force, said it is difficult to write comprehensive rules for self-driving vehicles because technology is changing “monthly, sometimes even weekly.”

“I am saying I believe Uber is operating within the law as it is written now,” he said. “Will there be more robust rules coming? The answer is yes.”

Mr. Simpson said California has the toughest rules governing self-driving vehicles. They include requiring companies to file a report annually describing every time during testing that the safety driver intervenes to override the self-driving system, even if it is just tapping the breaks, and report within 10 days any accident with a self-driving vehicle.

A draft bill in the state Senate includes those provisions, but Mr. Myers said he expects many changes before legislation is introduced.

Some have concerns about the reliability of requiring a safety driver.

Carryl Baldwin, an associate professor and director of Human Factors and Applied Cognition at George Mason University, said extensive studies have shown for decades that humans don’t do well “monitoring” situations. Studies on radar operators show their attention often is compromised within 15 minutes by external factors such as conversation or internal factors such as daydreaming.

“[Monitoring] is just a task humans are not very good at,” she said.

Ms. Baldwin, who works with federal officials and private companies, said she expects manufacturers to develop a type of warning system within a year or two to help safety drivers pay attention.

As far as liability in a crash, the responsibility remains the same whether a vehicle has a human or electronic driver, said James Lynch, chief actuary at the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.

“You don’t become more liable because your machine went haywire and caused a crash than if your driver went haywire,” he said.

Ed Blazina: [email protected] or 412-263-1470.

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