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Automated driving bill introduced in house

FILE - In this April 7, 2021 file photo, a Waymo minivan moves along a city street as an empty driver's seat and a moving steering wheel drive passengers during an autonomous vehicle ride in Chandler, Ariz. The U.S. government's highway safety agency has ordered automakers to report any crashes involving fully autonomous vehicles or partially automated driver assist systems. The move Tuesday, June 29, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates the agency is taking a tougher stance on automated vehicle safety than in the past. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Several Pennsylvania lawmakers are backing legislation to allow for driverless vehicle testing and eventual deployment.

Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion/Armstrong/Forest, has introduced House Bill 2398 with support from 16 co-sponsors, including two Democrats.

The Associated Press recently reported on a fleet of autonomous vehicle taxis that are up and running in San Francisco. Employees of General Motors and its autonomous vehicle subsidiary Cruise have been testing out the service for weeks, but Cruise recently posted a signup page for anyone to reserve a free ride in one.

Interim Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said the company is the first to offer driverless taxis in a major U.S. city and that the milestone triggered an $1.35 billion investment from Softbank, which had already put $900 million into the company. Vogt said the additional capital will allow the company to grow its work force and scale up the driverless technology in San Francisco and into other cities.

Oberlander’s legislative memorandum cited a recent study by the Regional Industrial Development Corporation and the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce that showed the estimated direct employment footprint in Pittsburgh’s automated vehicle industry tallies more than 6,300 jobs, providing an estimated $651 million in labor income; and, resulting in $34.7 million in state and local tax revenue and $126.7 million in federal taxes. When indirect jobs are included, the number of total industry jobs in the region is 15,000. These figures continue to grow as the industry continues to expand here in Pennsylvania.

Oberlander also wrote increased use of autonomous vehicles could save lives, citing federal statistics showing nearly 40,000 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates showing 8,730 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the first three months of 2021, a 10.5% increase from the 7,900 fatalities the agency reported for the first quarter of 2020. More than 90% of those accidents, she said, are caused by human error.

In February, the Associated Press reported autonomous vehicle company Gatik eliminated the safety operator from behind the wheel of two self-driving trucks as part of its partnership with discounter Walmart. The company stands apart from other autonomous delivery companies because it doesn’t haul goods directly to shoppers. Rather, its autonomous trucks deliver groceries and other goods from big distribution centers to retail locations on fixed, repetitive, short distances, a critical link to the delivery system. For example, Gatik’s two fully autonomous driving vehicles for Walmart haul goods on a fixed 7.1 mile route in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart’s headquarters is based.

Gatik, which operates a fleet of 25 autonomous trucks, has pilot programs with Walmart in Louisiana and Arkansas as well as Loblaw Cos. in Ontario, Canada. Last year, it expanded into Texas with fresh sources of capital. It has developed proprietary software that is a hybrid between classic robotics and machine learning-based algorithms, and its trucks feature sensors with a 360 degree view.

“There are 21 states in the U.S. that allow for driverless operation,” Gautam Narang, Gatik CEO and co-founder, told the AP in February. “That means we can take a driver out in 21 states in the U.S. and commercialize ourselves. But for long-haul trucking, they have to work with multiple states to make that long-haul trip possible because today all the policies are still very much at the state level. There’s no federal policy today. Obviously, there are bills that are being voted upon that we expect to come through in the next few years. But for now, all the policies in the space are still very much at the state level. So it benefits us a lot.”

Work by Gatik and other companies has caught Oberlander’s eye. Among Gatik’s rivals are TuSimple, which did a fully autonomous test of a semitruck on a freeway in Arizona last year. There’s also Aurora, which is working with Volvo on an autonomous truck, and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, which is working with UPS.

“Additionally, our country faces an enormous supply chain problem,” Oberlander wrote. “Our ports are backed up and the current CDL driver shortage of more than 80,000 is expected to rise to 100,000 by 2023. This problem is not going to fix itself. We need creative and innovative ideas like autonomous vehicles to help take the pressure off the supply chain and help deliver food, medicine, and building supplies across the United States. Autonomous vehicles can help but only if they are allowed to operate in states like Pennsylvania with a vast and key transportation network.”

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