It was no doubt coincidence last week that Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen announced they were pulling funding from Pittsburgh-based self-driving vehicle developer Argo AI hours after the state Legislature approved a long-awaited bill to set testing rules.
The legislation supported by Argo and other locally based developers of autonomous vehicles gave them the ability to test vehicles in the state without a driver, something other states allow. The industry and economic development officials began pushing lawmakers in January 2021 for testing rules because they feared the state could lose out on potentially trillions of dollars in development from businesses producing components used to control self-driving vehicles.
But before Argo was ready to use the testing rules, the automakers pulled their funding, causing the company to announce it would close.
Despite the odd timing, some industry groups still applauded the legislation. The bill will allow testing vehicles without a driver behind the wheel or an emergency driver in the vehicle, requires a $1 million liability policy, and requires any accident involving damages or injury to be reported to the state Department of Transportation.
Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said in a news release the bill “signals the Commonwealth’s commitment to the industry and the long-term growth opportunity it represents.”
“In spite of the news that Argo AI will cease operations in Pittsburgh, AV remains a viable part of the region’s robust robotics and autonomy ecosystem,” she said. “This is a major step in making the region even more attractive to AV industry players seeking a competitive edge …”
Adam Kovacevich, CEO of technology advocate Chamber of Progress, called the bill “big news for anyone who wants to see safer streets in Pennsylvania.” The belief is self-driving vehicles will eliminate human error that is responsible for the vast majority of crashes.
“(Autonomous vehicles) eliminate human error from driving, will save thousands of lives over the long run, and have the power to connect non-driving communities with options for getting around,” he said in a news release. “If you factor in the economic benefits that the state’s tech workforce will see, this is a win-win-win for Pennsylvania.”
The legislation has gone through substantial changes since it was initially introduced in January. At that time. Phillip Koopman, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who has helped to develop safety standards for the Society of Automotive Engineers International in Warrendale, said the bill leaned too heavily in favor of the industry without providing enough public protection.
He also cited technical problems with the language used initially.
Requirements such as liability coverage, making a company responsible for damages rather than an individual and a mandatory company safety plan are improvements, he said last week.
On the down side, he said, PennDOT has limited ability to reject testing applications or revoke testing permits unless there is a legal decision against a developer. Additionally, municipalities will not be able to make stricter rules than the state.
A PennDOT spokeswoman declined comment because the department is still reviewing the bill.
Given Argo’s closure, Mr. Koopman said he questions why legislators didn’t continue working to improve the bill.
“I don’t see anything that needed to be fixed right away, so this could have waited,” Mr. Koopman said. “I don’t understand why we have to have a law if there’s almost no one to use it.”