Like many a weary road-warrior, the holiday season provides a respite from traveling to client sites and conferences. I visited family in a small town, probably a lot like where your parents or grandparents live. Land is plentiful. Traffic is low. Unfortunately, the sparse population means mass transit isn’t very robust. These folks NEED their cars. My time back home led to some thoughts about how autonomous vehicles would impact a place like this, if at all. Small town are less likely to embrace such technologies and certainly don’t have the budgets for experimentation that larger cities do. I envisioned a tale of two cities…
Its 2028 and self driving cars are commonplace. In Metropolis, commutes are now a breeze. Riders enjoy new found leisure time or squeeze in more productivity via remote work on their commutes. Yet, towns like Smallville remain completely shut out of the autonomous vehicles revolution. Aside from a few robotic farm vehicles on private property, the technology has hardly made an impact.
How might these smaller towns catapult themselves into modernity to contend with bigger cities? They’ll need a framework to consider in long-term planning for the future. Autonomous Vehicles are sure to impact all facets of life, even in small towns. But the key considerations remain the same no matter the population size: Jobs, Quality of Life, and Accessibility.
Where will your city lie? And what can you do today to have an impact? You want to attract the best & brightest people and organizations to your town. Comprehensive AV accessibility will come to be an expectation for them. People will expect to have their goods autonomously delivered to them. People will expect to have cheap and reliable mobility services provided by AI. Winning in this arena calls for a new mobility playbook. Such planning work can be done before the first AV ever arrives in your town. Thinking through the process better prepares you for when that day comes.
Determine where the autonomous vehicles can be used.
There’s a reason so many autonomous vehicle companies test their machines in Phoenix. The roads are clear and the weather is friendly (now if only the people could be just as nice). The nascent technology needs testing grounds without too much complexity or danger. As the technology deploys in your town, give it that same grace by rolling out first in office parks that have predictable movements or college campuses with alert and tech savvy students. But once the technology proves itself in terms of safety and efficacy, move fast to deploy in all parts of the city. Limiting use to wealthy enclaves only serves to further exacerbate inequality and misses out on the gains to be made by empowering all citizens with mobility.
Determine when autonomous vehicles can be used.
Due to a number of regulations on drive times and pressure to deliver, truck drivers often travel right alongside morning commuters headed to work. The result is increased congestion and a worse experience for everybody involved. Trucks and other delivery vehicles are estimated to cause an estimated 947,000 hours of vehicle delays per year. The advent of autonomous trucking presents opportunity to offload those peak hours by time restricting commercial vehicles to use at certain hours. Time restriction also help test the technology under less hectic conditions. Cities piloting their use of autonomous vehicles can restrict their use to weekends or other low traffic instances.
Determine how autonomous vehicles integrate into mobility infrastructure.
From registration to regulation, autonomous vehicles need the guidance and oversight to obey the rules of the road. And their presence will require us to write new ones. AV integration will also call for educational programs. Citizens of a small town likely will have limited exposure to such vehicles and require some of level of training on how to engage them.
The flip side of this playbook approach is the lack of planning for micro-mobility in most cities. Micro-mobility is the catch all term for scooters, bikes, and other small vehicles meant to replace the traditional automobile. If your city streets are lined with motored scooters strewn about haphazardly or if you’ve seen an intrepid commuter riding down the highway on their ride-share scooter, then you know firsthand how poor planning for transportation can have swift consequences. The scooter craze is only a year old but already seems to be a visual blight that annoys all citizens besides the ones riding them.
In planning for the introduction of autonomous vehicles, one must also anticipate their unintended consequences on other facets of life. The convenience and efficiency they bring about for some, may result in complete disruption for others.
Nowhere is that dichotomy more paramount than in the labor sector. Full autonomy of vehicles is expected to spell the end of taxis, bus drivers, truckers, and the like. But the demise of those professions gives way to new roles centered around keeping track of all the unmanned vehicles, safeguarding them, and protecting the people around them. The key question is how the drivers of yesterday can transfer into their new roles in the future of work? Cities must prepare robust retraining programs and provide new, comparable work opportunities to those that have been disrupted in the workforce.
Such transformative technology need not be the playground of the privileged. In fact, autonomous vehicles may be of even greater importance to marginalized communities. Citizens with lesser means would have mobility options that grant access to adequate nutrition, healthcare, entertainment, and work opportunities. The 1 in 5 Americans with disabilities that were previously left behind, now have opportunities to improve quality of life through autonomous mobility.
Unfortunately, many lawmakers lack the subject matter expertise to assess how laws will shape or hinder autonomous trucking. Given the gravity of the matter, lawmakers would do well to seek out independent research from university scholars, dedicated technology staff within the DoT, emergent technology innovators, concerned commuters – and yes, unions – to think through the policy ramifications and advise on ways to implement rules that benefit all citizens.
Self-driving vehicles present new opportunities, but there are still lessons to learn from past mobility innovations. While the Interstate Highway System established convenient access to jobs, shops, entertainment and other amenities for many citizens, these infrastructure advancements were also detrimental to certain communities as new roads plowed through established neighborhoods or introduced noise pollution to tenements with traffic whizzing by windows. With knowledge of that destructive past, legislators must consider the human cost of new transportation paradigms and commit to equitable access for all.