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Roadblocks to the Revolution

With the look of a scene out of Mad Max, The Darpa Grand Challenge of 2004 kickstarted the autonomous vehicle revolution. This...

6 Minutes Read

With the look of a scene out of Mad Max, The Darpa Grand Challenge of 2004 kickstarted the autonomous vehicle revolution. This government-sanctioned competition invited teams from across the country to race self-driving cars across a course in the Mojave desert. None of the the teams completed the course but it set in motion the race to autonomy we see today. The following year almost the entire field of competitors surpass the best distance from 2004 and five teams completed the entire course. Teams continued improving over the years with faster completion times while navigating increasingly complex courses. The most notable innovation spurred by this competition was the use of LIDAR technology to complement the litany of cameras previously used by competitors to gauge the location and surroundings of the vehicle. Government action may have spurred on the development of autonomous vehicles, but further legislative action and private sector partnership are required for complete deployment of the technology that could be to the benefit of citizens throughout the country.

The last mobility related legislative decision with of this magnitude came in the form of the National Highway System implemented by President Dwight Eisenhower. This newly constructed network of interconnected roadways had a massive impact on quality of life and mobility in America by establishing more convenient access to jobs, shops, entertainment and other amenities for most citizens. Unfortunately, these infrastructure advancements were also detrimental to certain communities like Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District. In the 1950’s I-75 highway construction plowed through the previously economically and socially bustling neighborhood. The result was a bifurcated community that lost its luster and walkability. The additional exposure to air & noise pollution served as further detriment to residents of Sweet Auburn. Only in recent years has the neighborhood begun rebounding from the disruption of highway construction.

Knowing that the arrival of autonomous vehicles presents similar potential for disrupting the layout of cities and how people and things move about them, then-secretary of the DoT, Anthony Foxx determined that a more localized strategy was necessary, noting that, this time around, cities would need to be “much more sophisticated about what choices they make when it comes to investing in these technologies.” So, in 2017, the Department of Transportation released a policy document outlining regulatory standards for manufacturing and selling autonomous vehicles, as well as how data should be shared for research and future policy development. However, the guidelines serve less as law and more as a framework for local legislators to follow, taking into consideration their own geography’s particular needs, landforms, weather patterns and other factors.

Likely a result of varying degrees of political pressure, the legal landscape for self driving vehicles is as varied as the occupants of the states themselves. Twenty one states plus Washington D.C. have passed legislation for autonomous vehicles. Looking to woo technology companies for in-state jobs, Nevada was the first state to introduce legislation on the topic. Several companies have set up shop there for testing as a result. But many more states remain without having taken any action on autonomous vehicles at all.

With the stage set by the DoT, local municipalities now have the opportunity to shape their cities through laws that take advantage of advancing autonomous vehicle technology while ensuring the safety of citizens. Questions continue to swirl regarding how the technology will be implemented and what cities can do to prepare. Roadblocks lie ahead, but they don’t have to impede the revolution. Autonomous vehicles can be smoothed into mainstream use with the following considerations:

Let the Data Drive

Each journey in an autonomous vehicle creates a deluge of data. Taken at aggregate, that data tells the story of commuting for an entire community. Such information is of great use for planning infrastructure decisions, but poses data privacy risk at the individual level. It is imperative that local governments protect their constituents’ data while maintaining transparency about how it is used. Lawmakers and auto makers alike must answer the question of how we keep the cameras on every autonomous car from becoming a vast apparatus for the surveillance state.

Mind the Money

Autonomous vehicles are poised to take a toll on the city coffers. I’m sure the irony is not lost on municipalities that have done the same to citizens through traffic and parking tickets. The robots are programmed to follow road rules to a T, so moving violations will decrease. And there’s no need for street parking when vehicles don’t have to stick around after the driver exits. With moving and parking violations kept at a minimum, the revenue they drive will dwindle. Some municipalities rely on such funds for up to 25% of their revenue. The elimination of this often discriminatory ticketing opens the door for more equitable funding options for forward thinking municipal governments.

Prepare for the Fallout

A more heavy toll than the ticketing described above is that of human life. As former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration leader Mark Rosekind stated, “Unfortunately, there will be crashes. People are going to get hurt and there will be some lives lost.” Cities must plan now for how they will reconcile the benefits of autonomous vehicles with the correlating human costs. Each injury threatens to detail the progress of the technology. Laws addressing the liability of such incidents and protocol for restitution would go a long in establishing trust with commuters.

As we stand on the cusp of the greatest transformation to transportation since the advent of the highway system, it would behoove us to consider the lessons or mistakes of the past. While most citizens gain from infrastructure development, it has historically come at the cost of certain populations. Autonomous vehicles can bring access to the disabled, opportunity to the marginalized, and convenience for all. But only if we collectively mandate the inclusion of such elements from the outset.


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