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PennDOT prepares for advent of autonomous vehicles

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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, 9:19 p.m.

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch predicts that his twins, 18 months old, might never drive cars, at least not in the way we do now.

“They will likely program their car to transport them autonomously to their destination,” said Schoch, 52. “And like any parent, if that vehicle can't speed, can't run off the road and can't run into another vehicle, I will rest much easier at night knowing that they are safer because of this technology.”

Fully autonomous 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 vehicles have semi-autonomous features, such as collision avoidance systems that automatically apply brakes before an object is struck.

To help PennDOT prepare for the day when autonomous vehicles are the norm, Schoch recruited Carnegie Mellon University.

PennDOT and CMU will look at how to regulate self-driving vehicles and how they might affect policy decisions in a study expected to get under way in about a month and to take a year to complete, said Allen D. Biehler, a former PennDOT secretary who is now a distinguished professor of transportation systems and policy at CMU.

Biehler said agencies such as PennDOT are asking what the emergence of autonomous vehicles means in terms of their operation and investment decisions.

“Because autonomous vehicles will be able to travel more closely together, maybe six-lane roads with 14-foot-wide lanes and 30-foot medians are no longer needed,” he said.

The scope of the PennDOT study is still being finalized, Biehler said, and it is not yet known how much it will cost.

CMU is a leader in autonomous vehicle research. Five years ago, a fully autonomous sport utility vehicle the university developed with General Motors won a 60-mile road race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The SUV, called “Boss,” maneuvered around the course at an average speed of 14 mph without any human intervention, en route to a $2 million prize.

“This is for real. The question isn't whether this is going to happen; it's when,” Biehler said, predicting autonomous vehicles will be the norm in 20 to 25 years.

Google is developing a fleet of automated vehicles, and most auto manufacturers are moving in that direction. Three states — Nevada, Florida and California — have authorized testing of automated cars on their roads, and legislation has been proposed in several other states and the District of Columbia.

The Associated Press contributedto this report. Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847.

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