Guest Op-Ed: Partnering on Automated Vehicle Pilots and Ensuring Two-Way Streets to Success

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Foxx maintained his promise to keep initiatives moving until his very last day in office. His final months saw a number of exciting announcements by USDOT related to automated and connected vehicles, including the release of the proposed vehicle-to-vehicle rule by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the release of vehicle-to-infrastructure guidance by the Federal Highway Administration, and the announcement of 10 automated proving grounds across the United States.

As if that was not enough, the first meeting of DOT’s Advisory Committee on Automation also took place during the last week of Secretary Foxx’s tenure. It was refreshing to see two cities named to the Committee – the City of Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.

However, one potential missed opportunity is not having a public transportation agency on the Committee to ensure new technologies enhance existing public transportation systems where significant investments are being made.

In addition to promoting policies and programs to advance new innovative technologies, DOT has recently announced large amounts of funding for traditional transit projects, including $1 billion for the Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project in San Diego, $1.6 billion for the Westside Purple Line Extension in Los Angeles, $1 billion for the Red and Purple Line Modernization Project in Chicago, and $499 million for TEX Rail in Fort Worth.

The point of referencing both the recent innovative announcements and more traditional federal project funding news is to highlight the simultaneous challenge and opportunity of incorporating smart transportation technologies, including ridesharing, automated, and connected vehicles, into cities in a way that complements our existing transportation system.

Not only will such an approach avoid increased congestion risked by a future with nothing but single-occupancy automated vehicle trips, but it also allows us to realize the return on continued large investments into our public infrastructure.

DOT’s designation of 10 automated vehicle proving grounds is an important opportunity to implement pilot programs for testing the operation of automated vehicles in different real-word operating environments – an important step toward developing the critical and missing framework for the safe operation of automated vehicles on our roads.

However, in order for such partnerships to succeed, information needs to be shared regularly and effectively so that both sides learn from any pilot.

An important part of the evaluation criteria to be selected as an automated vehicle proving ground is information sharing with DOT, including sharing approaches to safety and safety data generated through testing and operation during the pilot program.

Navigating the road of privacy and data sharing has hit some speed bumps for ongoing pilot programs, which is unfortunate since, as already noted, these pilot programs offer an opportunity for both the private and public sector to collaborate on what type of infrastructure is needed to support the safe, effective and efficient deployment and operation of automated vehicles.

In order to maximize the opportunities from automated vehicle pilot programs, balanced policies and agreements are encouraged that address important legal issues, including privacy and data collection, data sharing and analysis, and public outreach. Through collaboration and transparency in the negotiation of such issues into agreements, the safe deployment of new technologies can succeed – and widespread public buy-in will be more easily accomplished.

Further, the public and private sector can collaborate on the analysis of data from these programs to determine how new technologies interact with existing infrastructure, what current infrastructure priorities may need to be rethought, and where efficiencies can be realized.

To achieve the true public-private partnership needed to continue the safe testing and deployment of automated vehicles, a two-way learning street is needed, not a one-way street that seeks to discourage local coordination and approval. Without coordination with local officials and public buy-in on pilot programs, there is a genuine risk of missing a revolutionary opportunity to enhance connectivity through increased mobility for all citizens across all demographics, and developing the important safety framework that is needed and much desired.

As noted in USDOT’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, public outreach is an important focus of future necessary actions for the safe deployment of automated vehicles. By coordinating with and obtaining local approval for the testing of automated vehicles, the important public outreach component is addressed, which helps those who may be wary of technological change understand the transformative benefits offered by automated vehicles, rather than learning through the news of a new pilot program and voicing opposition that may threaten support for a newly implemented pilot program.

Bringing the private and public sectors together to share the road toward innovation will ensure the safe deployment of automated vehicles, and promote the development of viable and balanced regulatory solutions early on. This mitigates the risk of the dreaded “patchwork” regulatory quilt down the road caused by the “Not In My Backyard” mindset (“NIMBYism”) or regulatory forum shopping.

Already, we see some communities experiencing pushback concerning the deployment of automated vehicles, including upstate New York and Chicago.

The continued testing of automated vehicles through pilot programs should not be a battle with both the public and private sector drawing regulatory lines in the sand; instead, it should be a true partnership where both sides collaborate to safely test automated vehicles in various operating environments to maximize the critical opportunity to learn from each other about what is needed for the safe, effective, and efficient operation of automated vehicles on our roadways.

This will help to ensure all of the benefits of autonomous vehicles are realized as soon as possible.

Gregory Rodriguez is of counsel in Best Best & Krieger LLP’s Municipal Law practice group. Working out of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, Greg’s practice includes providing information, strategic guidance and legal assistance on the regulation and implementation of smart transportation technologies into the transportation network of local governments, including ridesharing programs and automated vehicles. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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