In Pittsburgh, high tech meets rugged roads

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Pittsburgh, where the quirky, hilly terrain meets today’s high tech, is at the epicenter for autonomous-vehicle testing.

“We call ourselves the double black diamond of automobile driving,” said the city’s director of mobility, Karina Ricks.

Ricks’ Department of Mobility and Infrastructure has been coordinating a pilot program with five entities — Uber, Carnegie-Mellon University, Aptive, Argo A1 and Aurora Innovation — using them throughout the 302,000-population Western Pennsylvania city.


Testing began in 2016.

“Pittsburgh has enough experience with the vehicles,” Ricks said in an interview. “Most, or at least a large portion of drivers, have experienced an autonomous vehicle at least at one time or another, either passing one or having one pass you.”

Still, these vehicles represent a great unknown, even beyond the fear of a 14-wheeler barreling down Interstate 80 with nobody at the throttle. Uncertainties have triggered some community push back, notably among Pittsburgh transit advocates.

Ricks said that feedback has included “a healthy level of skepticism.”

The City Council late last month, after tabling a vote two weeks earlier, advanced a $410,539 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration has sought to educate residents about self-driving vehicles.

The council, though, called for a public hearing before a final vote.

Variables nationally include effects on public finance.

“There is a strong chance autonomous vehicles, if and when they are used by a large number of riders, disrupt public finance in a number of ways,” said Tom Kozlik, head of municipal credit and strategy at Hilltop Securities Inc.

“It’s hard to know exactly how today in 2019 but it's possible revenue streams tied to parking, surface transportation and user charges, among others, shift in some way, shape or form.”

Additionally, Kozlik said, driving is a primary responsibility for nearly 4 million people. “So the labor market will need to adjust, too.”

Over the next decade, AV technology will rapidly alter the mobility landscape, according to Washington think tank, Eno Center for Transportation.

“The implications will vary from insurance and certification, to infrastructure and the environment,” Eno said in a report. “As AV development continues to progress, appropriate and effective public policies are critical to managing safe deployment.”

Villanova School of Business professor David Fiorenza sees a role for AVs in shipping and freight distribution as cities of all sizes grasp with congestion dynamics, including the build out of ride-hailing-app companies such as Uber and Lyft.

In Houston, Domino's Pizza Inc. is partnering with Nuro, a creator of unmanned robotic vehicles, to launch autonomous pizza delivery later this year. According to Domino’s, select customers who order online from a participating location could access their pizza from the vehicle through a personal identification number.

“Municipalities can find efficiencies with distributing services from one portion of the city to another, which long term results will see lower public costs,” said Fiorenza, a former chief financial officer of Radnor County, outside Philadelphia.

According to Eno, Nevada in 2011 became the first state to enact legislation authorizing the operation of AVs. It defined the term and mandated the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt rules for license endorsement, operation, insurance, safety standards and testing.

Since then, 25 states, including Pennsylvania, plus the District of Columbia have enacted AV legislation.


Rhode Island, with funding partly from a Volkswagen emissions testing scandal settlement, has launched a $1.2 million green energy pilot featuring small autonomous vehicles that could provide a shuttle service in capital city Providence.

The “Little Roady” shuttle — playing off the state’s former nickname, Little Rhody — runs along a five-mile loop along with the usual traffic across city streets. It operates from the downtown train station westward to the city’s Olneyville neighborhood with 12 stops and a projected 10 minute wait time.

Aside from a policy statement the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released in 2016, the federal government passed no policies or laws directly pertaining to automated vehicles except for a few minor demonstration projects and research.

Joshua Schank, the chief innovation officer for mass-transit agency Los Angeles Metro, sees a disconnect between technology marketing and public policy.

“Technology companies and the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are looking to sell cars and technology. So they’re going to sell you on ‘isn’t this cool’,” Schank said at the Smart Cities NYC conference in New York.

“That’s a nice fantasy. But the reality today is that 40,000 people are dying because of car crashes. And in L.A., it’s a particularly acute problem and pedestrians and bicyclists are the most vulnerable people. Autonomous technology has the ability to address that problem, and that’s where our focus should be as public servants.”

Fiorenza called Pittsburgh manageable and a good for AVs. “I would like to see cities in Pennsylvania under 100,000 look at the AV concept as well,” he said.

Pittsburgh, on the brink of bankruptcy in 2003 when its bonds were junk, has rebranded itself around technology and “eds and meds,” tapping its wealth of educational institutions such as Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and Highmark Inc.

Last year the city, which has received 11 rating-agency upgrades since 2003, ended its 14-year stay in the state-sponsored workout program for distressed cities commonly known as Act 47.

Pittsburgh has about 60 AVs traipsing through 35 of 90 city neighborhoods, notably in the trendy Strip District — which retail behemoth Amazon Inc. scrutinized when it screened cities for its additional headquarters — plus outlying Lawrenceville and Oakland.

“There’s no real end date for the testing. We are working closely with our AV companies, said Ricks, a former director of transportation planning for the District of Columbia. “We’re not ready to free-range. Not for a while.”

Grant money from the Miami-based Knight Foundation has backstopped testing in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Miami, and Long Beach and San Jose in California.

According to Kozlik, Pittsburgh is a suitable testing ground because of its multitude of like-minded talent pool.

“Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh have a lot to do with the talent pool, I would suspect,” he said. Argo AI, which has partnered with Ford Motor Co., is there, as is Aurora.

“Getting a little more practical, I also suspect the terrain and weather has something to do with it, too. The terrain in Pittsburgh and its neighborhoods are very hilly. The weather ranges from cold and snowy winters to heat and humidity-filled summers.”

The killing of a pedestrian in spring 2018 by an autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, stoked fears of AVs and prompted Uber to briefly pull its self-driving vehicles from its pilot cities, including Pittsburgh.

This spring, Peduto issued an executive order — the so-called Pittsburgh Principles — establishing policies for the testing. He said the principles would "serve as a model for cities and places across the globe.”

Protocols mandate two operators in these vehicles at all times and establish an across-the-board speed limit of 25 miles per hour. The latter, Ricks said, has triggered a “kerfuffle” from motorists driving on roads where speed limits are higher. The city has been reporting test results with the commonwealth.

The city has established three working groups, including an advisory committee whose representation includes business and tech industry leaders, transit agencies, immigration and labor unions who fears loss of jobs.

Another group features “policy partners,” such as public agencies responsible for revenue and safety. It discusses protocols for crash sites, police pullovers, and yielding the right-of-way for emergency vehicles such as fire and ambulance.

A tech advisory group “functions as a sounding board,” Ricks said.

Integrating with mass transportation is another discussion point, given questions about the future of transit agencies in Pennsylvania.

Moody’s Investors Service in early June warned that the Pittsburgh-based Port Authority of Allegheny County and the Philadelphia region's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority need new revenue sources — in a state with its own chronic budget strife — regardless of how a lawsuit over toll-related revenue plays out.

Some transit advocates worry that AVs could negate transit expansion plans.

Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, objected to the city’s $23 million cost for AV roadway infrastructure related to a proposed the Mon-Oakland Connector, which would serve the Hazelwood, Greenfield and Oakland neighborhoods east of downtown.

The cost estimate, according to Wiens, “doesn’t account for countless hours of city staff time and the staggering cost-per-ride that will be incurred in operating expenses for the proposed AV micro-transit shuttle.”

Speaking before the City Council last month, Wiens said: “We need to do it right [to ensure] that these resources will be used to discuss all of the known or anticipated impacts that AVs will have — to good middle class jobs and the economy, to the environment, pedestrian safety, data privacy, and to public transit and mobility, particularly for the underserved.

“None of these impacts will happen in isolation, so residents must be given the ability to weigh them as a whole.”

AVs, according to Ricks, should be “capillaries” to transit options.

Cities will benefit environmentally and in other ways only if trips are shifting from auto trips to non-auto trips “and we’re not cannibalizing transit trips, that they’re not just cannibalizing one another. These are some of the things that we’re concerned about.”

Ricks, speaking at the Smart Cities NYC conference, said walking and riding “is in the DNA of our community.”

She added: “People have historically walked to their jobs at their mills down along the river, walked to the various main streets that are scattered across our city.”

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