Automated vehicles are already on Pa. roads, but just how automated are they?

Pennsylvania

File photo of cars (Getty Images)

(WHTM)– Although completely driverless cars may still be relegated to the realm of science fiction, automated vehicles are already being driven on Pennsylvania’s roadways. To learn more about what Pennsylvanians think and know about automated vehicles, the state’s Department of Transportation is asking residents to complete a survey.

A vehicle is considered automated if a computer system controls some aspect of driving that would typically be done by a person, explains Mark Kopko, director of transformational technology at PennDOT. This can include things like accelerating, braking, turning, signaling and more.

SAE International, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania, defines automated vehicles, or AVs, on a scale of 0-5. Levels 0-2 include features that assist the person driving the vehicle, but the driver is still mostly in control. Vehicles in levels 3-5 are considered “highly automated,” requiring little to no driver control.

Credit: SAE International

Level 5 automated vehicles are what most people probably think of when they picture self-driving cars. “Basically this vehicle can go anywhere any time, without or with a driver. Maybe it has a steering wheel, maybe it doesn’t,” Kopko said.

Features like emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane assist and self-parking are considered low levels of automation, Kopko said, and they’re present in lots of cars on the road already. While several places are testing Level 3 and Level 4 AVs, “no one is really saying that they have a true Level 5,” Kopko says.

Pros and cons of automated vehicles

For some, driverless or self-driving cars may sound like a dream-come-true. For others, they may elicit fears of crashes caused by technical errors. With its survey, PennDOT hopes to gauge how Pennsylvanians feel about AVs and highly automated vehicles, or HAVs, on the state’s roads.

For individuals with physical challenges, like impaired vision, that impede their driving ability, HAVs could provide more agency, easier mobility and more convenient, accessible transportation, Kopko says.

Another possible pro of AVs is that they may improve safety and help prevent accidents. Kopko notes that “94% of all crashes are due to some sort of human error, so if you can make a computer system that functions the way it should — and we understand that’s an ‘if’…in theory that could take away 94% of all crashes that are on the roadways.”

Dennis Buterbaugh, abc27’s automotive reporter, says that driver support features like automatic emergency braking or lane assist can help decrease accidents caused by distracted drivers or challenging driving conditions. However, he warns people against leaning too heavily on features that are only intended to assist drivers.

“To really get the most out of that safety, drivers have to remember [that] those devices are there to assist you, not to replace you. And when drivers start to depend on those features rather than having them enhance their driving, that’s when it can be a problem,” says Buterbaugh.

While the safety features of AVs and HAVs could make them an asset to Pennsylvania’s roadways, they could also create new issues. AVs driving especially cautiously could cause congestion and even accidents, notes Kopko.

While a lot of research on AVs and HAVs is still theoretical at this point, the experience of driving is anything but, and AV features affect that experience.

Personally, Buterbaugh finds driver support features like blind-spot detection very helpful, but he says other features can feel a bit bothersome. “Sometimes in my stories, you’ll hear me use the term ‘electronic nannies,'” he says, “and sometimes the electronic nannies are irritating to me.”

Buterbaugh says that he always leaves all of a vehicle’s features turned on when he drives it for a review, but he turns a lot of them off when just driving for pleasure. “Some of the features where it corrects the steering while you’re driving, it can almost feel like the car’s struggling with you,” he says.

Ultimately, Buterbaugh says he likes driving, so the idea of a fully autonomous car isn’t entirely appealing. “I’m an old guy who enjoys driving a car, so I’m OK if the car doesn’t drive itself,” he says.

For those who don’t enjoy driving, Buterbaugh points out that there are other transportation options like rideshare companies, trains and buses that don’t require passengers to drive themselves and are available right now.

PennDOT wants your input on automated vehicles

“It’s not Pennsylvania, it’s not PennDOT, it’s not, frankly, government that’s driving the development of this technology. It’s industry, and we’re trying to make sure we don’t fall behind,” says Kopko. To that end, PennDOT hopes to assess Pennsylvanians’ perceptions of AVs with an ongoing survey.

Infrastructure like roadways is designed around the human element, Kopko explains, so losing the human element of driving could change the way experts plan the state’s infrastructure in the future. Since roads can have a lifespan of decades, Kopko says PennDOT is looking to prepare for a more automated future now.

Take PennDOT’s 10-minute survey here. More information about AVs and HAVs in Pennsylvania can be found on PennDOT’s website, here.

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