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PennDOT chief, U.S. congressman to make Western Pa. trip in driverless vehicle

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 11:36 a.m.
2013 Cadillac SRX

A luxurious Cadillac cruising along the busy Parkway West with midday traffic on Wednesday will contain a state cabinet member, a congressman and two engineers — but no driver.

The thousands of motorists who drive the 30-mile stretch on Route 19, Interstate 79 and the Parkway West to Pittsburgh International Airport likely won't know about the ordinary-looking experimental driverless car, but that's OK.

The Pennsylvania State Police didn't know about it either until a Tribune-Review reporter called on Tuesday.

The demonstration is part of a collaboration between General Motors and Carnegie Mellon University.

“That might be the wave of the future, but we're more concerned about (Wednesday) and what safeguards are being put in place to not cause disruption to traffic or endanger anyone on the roads or in that car,” state police spokeswoman Maria Finn said. She said police weren't asked to provide an escort or restrict traffic.

Carnegie Mellon and General Motors developed the specially equipped Cadillac SRX crossover that will carry PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch and U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg.

“There is nothing for the public to worry about. We always have a human in the driver's seat, ready to take over at a moment's notice,” said Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon electrical and computer engineering professor and co-director of the CMU-General Motors Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab.

The Pittsburgh-area road test will begin at 11 a.m. at the Cranberry Public Works Department. The vehicle will travel through busy areas where vehicles routinely merge and turn, start and stop and exceed 50 mph.

“If that thing can navigate Route 19, it can navigate anything,” said Tim Rogers, president of Cranberry Messenger Service on Route 19 near the test run's starting point.

Fully autonomous — or driverless — vehicles can run on their own with the help of computers, sensors and other technology, though a person can take control at any time. Many newer vehicles have semi-autonomous features, such as collision-avoidance systems that apply brakes before a vehicle can strike an object.

Carnegie Mellon spokesman Byron Spice said a university vehicle will trail the autonomous one to serve as “a buffer” between it and regular traffic.

Spice said a human-driven vehicle rear-ended an autonomous one that Google developed during a 2010 road test in California. A year later, one of Google's autonomous vehicles rear-ended a traditional car. Investigators linked both crashes to human error.

Finn said no Pennsylvania traffic laws exist regarding autonomous vehicles. Standard rules of the road apply, but it is not clear who would take the blame if an autonomous vehicle broke a traffic law or caused a crash.

“Who gets cited? We're fighting computers now,” Finn said.

Schoch said “the ride-along marks a turning point for the future of transportation not only in Pennsylvania, but across the nation.” He has been a proponent of the autonomous technology, saying it could make roads safer and less congested.

PennDOT recruited CMU to help the agency prepare for the day when autonomous vehicles are the norm. A study that began this year is looking at ways to regulate the vehicles and how they might affect future policy decisions.

CMU is a leader in the field. Five years ago, the university developed a fully autonomous sport utility vehicle that won a 60-mile road race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The SUV traveled at an average speed of 14 mph.

“The technology has come very far, very quickly,” Rajkumar said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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