Pennsylvania’s Guidelines for Self-Driving Cars

What started as the makings of science fiction is becoming a reality. Self-driving cars are leaving the Google campus and auto showrooms and headed to our roadways. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to help save lives and prevent injury by eliminating human error, but we have much left to discover about them, including who is liable in case of a car accident in Philadelphia or any other city in our state.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) hopes to address these questions and more in its newly released guideline for autonomous cars. The regulations intend to encourage the technology while fostering its growth in appropriate and safe ways.

Pennsylvania takes pride in being a proponent of highly automated vehicle (HAV) technology and has willingly opened its roadways to autonomous vehicles. Besides its HAV-friendly attitude, the state’s variable climate and topography are believed to be ideal testing grounds for self-driving cars.

Pittsburgh is home to Carnegie Mellon University, the birthplace of the autonomous vehicle. Since 1984, the School of Engineering has worked to improve the technology and has developed 14 HAVs to date. In late 2016, Uber began offering passengers rides in self-driving cars around select areas of the city.


Legislation set to pass in the coming months names PennDOT as lead authority in the regulation of autonomous vehicles. According to the report, the transportation authority hopes to break free from federal regulatory processes, which are too slow and inflexible to keep pace with current technological developments. The decision came after six months of research by the Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, a multidisciplinary team of engineers, government officials, advocates, and academics who collaborated to find a balance between promoting the advancement of HAV technology while ensuring public safety.

Per this legislation, the Transportation Secretary will develop policies to oversee the conditions, procedures, and other requirements for on-the-road testing of HAVs. The department will enter into a contract with anyone who wants to test a self-driving vehicle, which will include proof of $5 million in liability insurance. The contract can be cancelled or suspended by the department at any time. Entities entering contracts with PennDOT must provide a testing plan that includes descriptions of geographic areas and road types, intended rate of speed the vehicle will be traveling, and weather conditions.

The department can restrict vehicles to designated routes and can regulate platooning, a practice by which autonomous vehicles connect wirelessly to travel together in a convoy. Finally, testers will be required to collect and share crash data, as well as information about the car’s other operations.


A potential issue with autonomous vehicles is their security vulnerabilities. The prospect of a malicious hacker breaking into an HAV’s computer system and taking control of the vehicle is frightening to say the least. For this reason, all testers must provide proof of cybersecurity measures, including the ability for police and emergency responders to shut down compromised vehicles remotely.

Current regulations dictate there must be a driver behind the wheel to provide override and supervisory capabilities, but the department says these rules may change as the technology evolves.


Autonomous vehicles seem like a natural progression of technology, but there is much to deliberate before they go mainstream. The technology is not yet perfect, as we’ve learned from headlines around the country. There was an accident in late February in San Francisco, California, involving an self-driving Chevy Bolt, and the first fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle occurred in May 2016 in Williston, Florida.

Another concern is liability. If there is an accident involving a self-driving vehicle and a human-operated car, who is at fault? We know that technology can fail at times, but will law enforcement be biased against human operators? Even if an autonomous vehicle is at fault, who ultimately foots the bill? Will it be the operator or the company responsible for the failed technology?

We’ve yet to set a legal precedent for autonomous vehicles. As the technology continues to develop, legal authorities must research and prepare to litigate cases involving self-driving vehicles in the future. The successful development of this technology depends on careful preparation and planning.