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DANTE RAMOS

Driverless in Pittsburgh? ‘Greenlight governing’ deserves a green light

An Uber car drove through Pittsburgh to map out the roads and topography before the introduction of the company’s driverless vehicles in the city. Jeff Swensen/The NEW YORK TIMES

Too bad Uber isn’t testing out its autonomous vehicles in Boston. It’d be fun to sit in the back seat at rush hour and watch their robotic brains puzzling over the countless games of chicken that happen in our traffic-choked intersections. In the meantime, let’s be thankful that, upon learning of Uber’s plans to let passengers hail driverless cars, Pittsburgh’s leaders shrugged their shoulders, and said: Sure, whatever.

The ride-hailing company, which has a technology research center in Pennsylvania’s second-largest city, is expected to introduce a fleet of autonomous vehicles sometime soon. Over the weekend, The New York Times and The Washington Post both zeroed in on the city’s light approach toward regulating the effort. Indeed, large chunks of each story make city officials sound like rubes, who, as the Times put it, are “giving too much power to tech companies, all for a sheen of innovation.” Here’s more:

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"It's not our role to throw up regulations or limit companies like Uber," said Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh's mayor, who said that Uber planned to use about 100 modified Volvo sport utility vehicles for the passenger trials. The vehicles will also have a human monitor behind the wheel. "You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet." The mayor's mantra highlights what it takes these days as cities seek to shed their Rust Belt pasts and transform themselves into technology hubs -- essentially, give the tech companies lots of free rein. The approach, described as greenlight governing [emphasis mine], is one that Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania have nurtured over the last few years.

And here’s the Post’s version:

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators. Meanwhile, researchers note, autonomous cars have been thrown off by bridges, a particular problem in Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other major US city. "They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs," said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car."

Beneath both passages is an unspoken premise. Wait a minute — Pittsburgh is just letting Uber and its researchers do whatever they like?

The other possibility, of course, is that Claybrook et al. are falling for premature hype about autonomous-car technology. In reality, Uber’s test vehicles in Pittsburgh won’t be remotely driverless. There’ll be two human engineers in the front seats — one at the steering wheel who’ll assume control if anything goes awry, and another who takes notes the whole time.

In some quarters, the very idea of “greenlight governing” — in which regulators hang loose until events warrant otherwise — seems intrinsically suspicious. The Post story notes that there are no federal safety standards for testing autonomous vehicles, and no guidelines for testing them. Pennsylvania hasn’t enacted any laws or regulations, either.

But there’s also a risk of stepping in too early, before it’s even clear what shape an emerging technology will take.

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It’ll be hard to anticipate all the problems that autonomous cars might confront without making real trips for real passengers, who’ll have their own insights into how to make the overall system safer. Assuming the engineers in the front seats of Uber’s vehicles do their jobs, Pittsburgh residents should worry more about regular cars driven entirely by humans, who make mistakes even when they’re sober, wide awake, and undistracted by their phones.

Likewise, if Uber ever wants to do advanced-level testing in Boston — home to the nation’s worst drivers, says Allstate — the company deserves a green light here as well.


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.