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An Uber driverless Ford Fusion in Pittsburgh. Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

After a nationwide pause following a pedestrian fatality in Tempe, Arizona, this March, Uber’s self-driving cars are now back on the streets of Pittsburgh, under updated guidelines from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

The big picture: Autonomy failures should be seen as normal and expected events when on-road testing is used to flush out bugs. Regulations that require human test drivers to be trained, alert and able to take over when necessary — especially given the human tendency to lose focus during monotonous road tests — will help avert accidents and strengthen public trust.

While public confidence in self-driving car technology has decreased due to recent crashes, the blame for those accidents has been placed on human operators for failing to pay attention to safety.

  • Pennsylvania's new guidelines aim to reduce those risks by requiring two drivers at speeds above 25 mph and specific plans for human intervention in the event of an autonomy failure.
  • While PennDOT expects all road testers to comply, the rules are currently voluntary pending endorsement by the state legislature. (Legislative approval is required because the rules expand the scope of state motor vehicle law.)
  • California, another state pioneering autonomous vehicle regulations, has prioritized disengagement reports — which count the number of times the safety driver intervenes during testing — over driver procedures. Like Pennsylvania, though, it requires accident reporting and specifies minimum driver qualifications.

What to watch: The next big question is whether Congress will approve the AVSTART Act, which is generally supported by carmakers but opposed by safety advocates.

  • Both sides agree that the bill would reduce impediments to deploying the technology, but it would at least partially preempt state regulatory authority.
  • That leaves states nervous due to NHTSA's stated "non-regulatory approach" to the technology's safety, which affords AV vendors wide latitude.
  • NHTSA has said it will publish new AV guidelines this summer, but it seems unlikely to mandate road testing safety procedures.

Philip Koopman is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and co-founder of Edge Case Research, an autonomous system safety consultancy. He provided suggestions to PennDOT for the AV testing guidelines discussed above.

Go deeper

38 mins ago - Health

Study: Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization

A COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021. Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The readily available antidepressant fluvoxamine significantly reduced COVID-related hospitalizations, according to a large study published Wednesday.

Why it matters: The clinical trial suggests that a cheap, readily available drug could dramatically reduce serious illness and death when prescribed early.

By the numbers: Catholics, Biden and abortion

Expand chart
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

President Biden — the second Catholic U.S. president — will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, as some church leaders debate whether to deny Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

By the numbers: Overall, two in three U.S. Catholics believe Biden should be allowed to take Communion despite his stance on abortion, according to polling by Pew Research Center.

Texas House probes school library books dealing with race and sexuality

Photo: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, announced Wednesday that he's initiating a probe into schools' library books, according to a letter sent to the state's education agency and other superintendents.

Why it matters: The probe focuses on books that discuss race, sexuality or "make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex," Krause wrote in the letter.