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Mayor, governor say they can't ban Uber from Pittsburgh streets in wake of deadly crash

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, March 27, 2018, 10:21 a.m.
In this March 20, 2018, photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz. The fatality prompted Uber to suspend all road-testing of such autos in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.
In this March 20, 2018, photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz. The fatality prompted Uber to suspend all road-testing of such autos in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.
Police in a Phoenix suburb say one of Uber's self-driving vehicles has struck and killed a pedestrian.
Eric Risberg/AP
Police in a Phoenix suburb say one of Uber's self-driving vehicles has struck and killed a pedestrian.
This image made from video Sunday, March 18, 2018, of a mounted camera provided by the Tempe Police Department shows an interior view moments before an Uber SUV hit a woman in Tempe, Ariz. The video shows a human backup driver in the SUV looking down until seconds before the crash. The driver looked up and appeared startled during the last moment of the clip.
Tempe Police Department
This image made from video Sunday, March 18, 2018, of a mounted camera provided by the Tempe Police Department shows an interior view moments before an Uber SUV hit a woman in Tempe, Ariz. The video shows a human backup driver in the SUV looking down until seconds before the crash. The driver looked up and appeared startled during the last moment of the clip.

Pennsylvania won't be following Arizona in banning Uber from testing self-driving vehicles on its roads.

It can't.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey directed his department of transportation to suspend Uber's ability to test autonomous vehicles, according to a letter sent Monday to CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Ducey wrote that he found a video of the March 18 crash in which a self-driving Uber SUV hit and killed a woman walking her bike across a road "disturbing and alarming" and that it "raises many question about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona."

A spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said neither the governor nor PennDOT has the authority to stop Uber from testing.

"PennDOT does not have that power under current law because a human driver must be behind the wheel and responsible for control of the vehicle at all times," Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott wrote to the Tribune-Review.

As long as Uber has a safety driver behind the wheel — as it did in the Tempe crash — it is allowed to test its self-driving cars on Pennsylvania roads.

Uber grounded its self-driving fleets in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto and Tempe, Ariz., following the crash. Testing operations remain halted more than a week later.

Abbott wrote that when Uber resumes testing, PennDOT will work with the company to make sure safety is a priority.

Uber, in a statement posted on Twitter, wrote that the company will continue to work with investigators and work with the Arizona governor's office.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said Tuesday he doesn't have the authority to force Uber to stop using city streets as its testing grounds.

"I can't do that," Peduto told reporters. "That only can be done through state or federal departments of transportation, not on a local level."

Peduto said he would wait until the investigation in Tempe finishes before making any recommendations to Wolf or state regulators. The pending investigation didn't stop the mayor of Boston, who asked two self-driving companies testing in the city to pause their programs in the wake of the crash. Both companies, nuTonomy and Optimus Ride, complied.

Peduto, instead, hinted at the potential that this year at least two more autonomous vehicle companies could consider testing in Pittsburgh. Peduto said self-driving cars have brought more than 1,500 jobs to the city and $3 billion in investment over the last five years and that the industry is growing.

"There will be accidents along the way. That's to be expected," Peduto said, noting that he thought three pedestrians were killed last week in Pittsburgh by people driving cars. "There's an inherent risk in our public right of ways that we can improve upon, we can make better, but it's going to take time, and unfortunately there will be shortfalls in that process."

Fifteen months ago, Ducey welcomed Uber to Arizona "with open arms and open roads" after the company ran afoul of California regulators. The Republican governor signed an executive order at the beginning of the month allowing companies to conduct testing of fully autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel. Google's self-driving car company, Waymo, plans to start a driverless taxi service around Phoenix later this year.

Pennsylvania does not have a similar executive order. Aside from a line in its vehicle code requiring a human behind the wheel, the state has no regulations on autonomous vehicles. And in the two years since Uber started testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, state law makers have failed to pass any laws on autonomous vehicles or legislation that would give PennDOT the authority to regulate testing.

The most recent attempt, Senate Bill 427, went to the Senate Transportation Committee a year ago and died. No one from the offices of state Sen. John Rafferty, chair of the committee, or state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, the primary sponsor of the bill, returned phone calls and emails seeking comment about the bill. Vulakovich, a Republican from Glenshaw, is running for re-election.

"Title 75 is completely silent on vehicle automation," Roger Cohen, a policy director for PennDOT and co-chair of the state's Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, said, referencing the state's vehicle code.

Uber is a member of Pennsylvania's Autonomous Vehicle Policy Task Force, which was created in 2016 to develop rules and regulations for the self-driving cars in the state. The task force wrote guidelines 18 months ago, but without legislative authority PennDOT can't do anything, Cohen said.

And those guidelines, stale after 18 months, need to be reviewed, renewed and revised to catch up to technology, Cohen said.

PennDOT is hosting the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit on April 9 and 10 in Pittsburgh. Safety was scheduled to be a main topic of conversation even before the deadly Tempe crash.

Cohen said he will wait until the investigation concludes before making policy recommendations. The crash and death hit Cohen, who has worked on pedestrian safety at PennDOT, hard.

"I certainly hope that out of this tragedy that we learn and apply lessons that make us better at our responsibility to ensure the safety of the traveling public," Cohen said.

Staff writer Megan Guza contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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