How Local Governments Should Plan for Driverless Cars

(Ed. Note: This post is based off of a TEDx talk that Lauren Isaac recently gave in Sacramento, CA. You can watch the full talk here.)

Driverless cars, also referred to as autonomous vehicles (AVs), are capable of sensing their environment and navigating roads without human input. They rely on technologies like GPS, lasers, and radar to read their surroundings and make intelligent decisions about the car’s direction and speed. Google, Uber, every major automaker, and technology organizations like Apply, Tesla, and EasyMile are investing significantly in the advancement of autonomous technology. Many research institutions are partnering with automakers to provide research support and testing sites.

The potential impact of autonomous vehicles on society is vast, with both positive and negative implications.

Generally, public safety is the largest positive impact cited as AVs have the potential to eliminate the majority of the 94 percent of automobile accidents caused by human error. Other positive impacts could include: more efficient land use and improved mobility for the elderly, disabled, and youth. In addition, as cars will likely have shorter headways, roads may have more capacity, and parking circulation may be reduced.

Potential negative impacts include job loss in certain sectors. For example, drivers in the trucking industry, taxi services, and limousine services may not have jobs when their industries transition to driverless vehicles. Still unknown is how AVs will affect the level of congestion within and around our cities. For example, will people continue to own their vehicles and mostly travel alone or will the Uber model of shared vehicles become more prevalent? Will people keep their cars parked in remote parking lots? Will people send their empty driverless cars on many unlinked errands? As more people travel due to increased mobility options for elderly, disabled, and youth populations, does this mean there will be more vehicles on the road? Will people be willing to live farther from their jobs, resulting in longer trips?

Despite these uncertainties, there are things local governments should be doing now to plan for these many changes.

For example, local governments may need to update and reconfigure signage, speed limits, signal timing, roadways and parking spaces. As AVs become more popular, everything from service coverage to vehicle types to labor requirements stands to change. Transit agencies may need to completely re-think their services and fee structure in order to stay competitive in the new transportation environment.

Local governments may also experience significant financial consequences associated with driverless cars. Taxes, parking fees, speeding tickets, parking real estate, and incident management costs are just a few of the government revenues and costs likely to be impacted. Local governments must understand the impact of autonomous cars ahead of time and prepare accordingly.

Depending on the governance model utilized in a particular region, various local entities will have jurisdiction over driverless cars. These local, regional, and state government entities may include transit agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, air quality districts, departments of transportation, highway departments, and departments of public works.

For their part, states will likely continue to be responsible for driverless cars’ licensing and testing requirements. This includes establishing the standard for who can “drive” (or be responsible for) an autonomous vehicle, and how and where it must be tested.

It is important for the U.S. to lead when it comes to AV regulation. Beyond Silicon Valley and Detroit, technology development and testing is also under way in cities around the world (Gothenburg, Sweden; Bavaria, Germany; and Bristol, United Kingdom), often with the same level of government oversight (or less) as in this country. This is because officials there have stated that they are waiting for the U.S. to set the precedent. All the more reason for the  U.S. to take the lead and implement a well-balanced and effective oversight framework for the driverless industry.

Driverless cars are coming, with or without coherent public policy. Governments at all levels have the opportunity to proactively establish regulations, policies, and plans that can continue to support the driverless car revolution while keeping the traveling public safe and providing a positive example for nations around the world.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill