Infrastructure Week 2017: Preparing for the Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Future

While infrastructure investment was a major focus of Infrastructure Week 2017 activities in Washington, D.C., transportation stakeholders were also busy examining the profound effect autonomous and connected vehicles could have in a variety of areas in the decades to come. At two forums, one on May 16 and the other on May 19, much of the discussion was about the roles federal, state, local and regional policymakers should play in regulating and shaping these technologies so that society can benefit from their potential and mitigate some of their more negative consequences.

The Federal and State Roles in Autonomous Vehicle Policy

In September 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA issued a document called “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy: Accelerating the Next Revolution in Highway Safety.” Its second chapter outlined a “Model State Policy” that laid out potential areas of jurisdiction for states in regulating autonomous vehicles.

“At the time we were developing (the Model State Policy), there was a lot of angst at the state level,” recalled Nathaniel Beuse, associate administrator for safety research at NHTSA, during remarks at a May 16 forum hosted by the Alliance for Transportation Innovation. “Lots of companies wanted to test and deploy within different state jurisdictions and there were a lot of concerns coming from either law enforcement within those boundaries or within the legislatures (themselves) about how to regulate it or not regulate it.”

Beuse said a few years ago many were making the argument that testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles was possible in many states without any state legislative action and as soon as states took action, it often drew everything into question.

“I think we find ourselves in this sort of quagmire with the fact that legislatures want to show that they’re open for business but they also want to be responsive to their constituents and the different parts of the bureaucracy about who’s going to monitor safety if the feds aren’t doing it,” he said.

NHTSA ended up working closely on the policy with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the organization that develops model programs in motor vehicle administration, law enforcement and highway safety.

“It always seemed like the DMV folks were the guys that were stuck implementing whatever some legislature decided to pass and we thought at the time that was the most effective way to sort of help the states navigate federal versus state (issues),” Beuse said. “Even the states that (were) the most sophisticated … really did not understand NHTSA’s authority—our ability to issue standards, how we do that, how we handle recalls, how that’s managed.”

Beuse said the NHTSA policy document clearly lays out the lines of responsibility for states in managing things like licensing and registration of vehicles and managing test programs and for the federal government in setting up federal motor vehicle safety standards, enforcing them, handling situations involving product defects and overseeing vehicle design. But months after the document was released, Beuse believes state policymakers and others still need education on the roles of federal and state government in this policy area and the potential negative impact state legislation can have at this stage.

“In the past six months we’ve had a lot of conversations with local folks all the way up to the governor’s office and they still don’t understand that as soon as you say ‘we want to put a law in place,’ you automatically hinder things and if you get too specific, there are a lot of things right now that are just unknown (and actions can have the opposite impact of what was intended),” he said.

But not everyone agrees that states should hold back entirely on taking legislative action.   

“General Motors feels that it is necessary for states to act,” said Harry Lightsey, executive director of emerging technologies policy at GM. “We feel that just about every state that has not acted in the last year or two with self-driving cars in mind has laws on their books that clearly contemplate there’s a person behind the wheel, whether it’s licensing requirements or requirements that you have to stay with a vehicle—it has to be attended after it has had a crash, all of those types of things. So I think from our perspective before we undertake what will be a fairly significant amount of work and investment to place self-driving vehicles within a jurisdiction, we want to have a reasonable amount of certainty that we can do so legally.”

Lightsey said GM has been engaging with state legislatures and asking them to make it clear that self-driving vehicles can operate on public roads legally.

“Beyond that I think we would say that they ought to make the marketplace as open as they possibly can and still protect public safety,” he said. “There are many different types of companies that are innovating in this marketplace and (states) should allow all of those companies to deploy their products as long as they can commit to the public safety in doing so and we think that is the way to encourage innovation on a wide scale.”

States should look to the NHTSA document for guidance on where the federal authority lies, he said.

“They clearly have authority with regard to the hardware of the vehicle itself and they have enforcement authority and they have a very rich expertise in dealing with that,” he said. “If you require a piece of hardware in one state and it’s not required in another state or a different type of hardware is required in another state, it’s very difficult to manufacture cars that can cross state lines and cross jurisdictional lines. So we would encourage policymakers to leave that in the federal domain as it is currently and let us deal with it at that level.”

Virginia is one state that has moved forward to allow vehicle testing on roadways without the benefit of state legislation.

“In Virginia … we decided to keep our hands off,” said Dave Albo of the Virginia House of Delegates. “We’re trying to encourage this technology and what the manufacturers and the people in the business said is ‘whatever you do, don’t pass any laws because if you pass any laws, you (make) restrictions.”

But Albo said he still has questions about the commonwealth’s approach.

“I’m not quite sure an autonomous vehicle is even legal in Virginia because as a traffic lawyer I can tell you, you have to have a licensed person behind the wheel,” he said.

What State Policymakers Should Do

Speakers at the two Infrastructure Week forums had no shortage of ideas about how states should engage on autonomous vehicle policy in order to help bring about what many see as the ideal version of the future with shared-use mobility rather than single-occupant autonomous vehicles.

“I think GM has been pretty vocal about its vision for how we see self-driving cars (being) deployed in the early stages and the near horizon and that is in ridesharing fleets in urban centers with dense populations that have shown demand for ridesharing,” said Lightsey.

Colin Tooze is the director of Southeast public policy and communications for ridesharing company Uber, which over the last couple of years has invested heavily in self-driving car research and deployment.

“Today if you find yourself in Pittsburgh or Tempe, Arizona, you can take out your phone and request Uber X and you have the possibility of being matched with a self-driving Uber,” Tooze said. “These are not fully autonomous cars. There is what we call a safety driver in the front seat, who is in position to take over if something happens to go wrong. You also see that there’s an engineer in the front passenger seat taking notes and helping us understand what the car is seeing as it makes its way through the world.”

Tooze said the marriage of ridesharing and self-driving cars has the potential to make cities of the future less congested, to have a meaningful impact on reducing the number of fatal crashes and to free up land in cities that’s now used for parking for more productive purposes like commercial development or affordable housing.

“Because so many of these benefits are going to flow from the shared-use, self-driving vehicles instead of just the one-to-one replacement of cars … I think that means getting rideshare rules right as a first step,” he said. “In the U.S., 43 states have changed their laws to accommodate ridesharing expressly in the code. That can mean changes in state insurance laws. It means making it expressly clear that private vehicles can be put to a public purpose. And then it may mean changes in the law to allow price flexibility to make sure that the drivers can follow demand appropriately in real time.”

Tooze said he would also advise states to attend to existing infrastructure, which can allow self-driving cars to operate safely just as human-driven cars do today. But Tooze said he too believes there is a danger in states trying to do too much.

“In an attempt to extend a welcoming hand to the industry to operate in a given state, I think there’s a risk of if not over-regulating, presuming to put in place … regulation that might not reflect the direction of the industry over time,” he said. “It would be a real shame if we were overly prescriptive at this early stage with the industry still in its infancy and then that’s not something that reflects future business models that none of us in this room can even imagine.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association or GHSA in February released a new report called “Autonomous Vehicles Meet Human Drivers: Traffic Safety Issues for States,” which offers several suggestions for states to engage on autonomous vehicle policy.

“States can play a key role in educating the public about autonomous vehicle technologies, how to operate the technology safely and how to share the road,” said Russ Martin, director of government relations at GHSA. “We can do that now where there are large scale pilot projects happening.”

Caleb Watney, technology policy associate at R Street Institute, agreed that consumer education will be key.

“Ultimately the number one way that consumers are going to learn to trust this technology is by having exposure to it,” said Watney. “If states can facilitate pilot programs to get these tests running in their state, you can get faster data on what’s happening so you can make improvements more quickly and you can get consumers exposed to the technology more quickly.”

In terms of legislation, Martin said states should wait for model laws and model regulations to become available in order to aim for a common structure and avoid a patchwork of laws around the country. He said states should move to capture data on crashes involving automated vehicles and they should work with law enforcement to involve them in policy planning and updating enforcement procedures.

The Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based transportation think tank, has recently issued two reports on autonomous vehicle policy: “Beyond Speculation: Automated Vehicles and Public Policy” and  “Adopting and Adapting: States and Automated Vehicles.” The reports offer a variety of recommendations for state policymakers in how to approach the issues presented by autonomous vehicles.  

“One of the problems we saw at the state level is that each state not only is creating a patchwork of laws and regulations, but they’re defining automated vehicles differently,” said Paul Lewis, vice president for policy and finance at Eno. “Sometimes it’s automated vehicles, sometimes it’s autonomous vehicles. In Tennessee there’s an ORAV (operator-required autonomous vehicle) and a NORAV (no-operator-required autonomous vehicle). From a technical standpoint, it’s hard to have something that can cross state lines and have some kind of consistency if you’re not even defining it the same way.”

In lieu of definition-heavy legislation, Lewis said Eno has been recommending to states that they put together working groups.

“Every state should have a diverse stakeholder working group made up of officials in state government both on the legislative and executive side, other experts, industry both in the traditional OEMs and new technology firms,” he said. “Get together 25 to 30 folks that have a broad range of backgrounds and views on this to advise state governments and state legislatures on how to act and how their laws and their regulations may work with other states.”

Lewis said such working groups can create statements of principles for a state on key issues, without creating policy in statute that could inhibit future innovation.

Preparing for the Benefits and Negative Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles

Some policymakers and planners have come to view autonomous vehicles as a double-edged sword. While they appear likely to advance many societal benefits, they may also open a Pandora’s box of difficult issues to deal with in the years ahead.

“We sometimes get wowed by the benefits and the wow factor of new technology and we don’t take enough time collectively to think about the negative side and there is always a downside,” said Douglas Hooker, executive director at the Atlanta Regional Commission, during a May 19 forum hosted by the National League of Cities (which recently issued a “Policy Preparation Guide” on autonomous vehicles) and the National Association of Regional Councils. “There is no technology in the history of man that’s been 100 percent good. There’s always something and typically we’re behind as policymakers thinking about what those things are and it’s often when they show up and hit us in the face and we’re reacting in crisis mode.”

Ed Wytkind believes one of the issues that will hit policymakers in the face is the potential for job losses on the horizon if autonomous trucks and taxis become the norm. Wytkind is the president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, a coalition of unions representing transportation workers.

“Obviously there’s a major jobs impact,” he said. “Depending on who you believe and what studies you’ve read, the impacts of automation are as high as 4 to 5 million jobs at risk.”

Potential job losses are something that concerns Hooker in Atlanta as well.

“I think logistics companies can’t wait until they get to a proven vehicle that can go without a driver in it,” he said. “It gives us a lot of anxiety in the Atlanta region because transportation logistics is a huge part of our regional economy and most of those people do not have educational training beyond high school or a little bit of college.”

Wytkind said those job losses will come at a time when factors like wage inequality, flat wages and a decline in collective bargaining are already conspiring against American workers.

“We clearly need a labor market policy piece of (federal) legislation that recognizes this disruptive moment in our economy and comes up with a way to help working people and existing programs in the federal government can’t get that done,” he said. “What’s the role of the government as regulator? What’s the role of government to make sure the workers who are harmed have a safety net that doesn’t let them fall through? And what’s the role of big tech? Silicon Valley stands to make billions of dollars from automation. What’s their obligation to come up with solutions to the jobs that they are sadly going to destroy with innovation?”

There is another role that government is playing in the introduction of autonomous vehicles that has Wytkind concerned as well.

“If you think about autonomous vehicles, the U.S. government is playing the role of market-maker with taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I think a robust debate about that is probably fair. … If you think about it in individual terms, the taxpayer helps fund research about how to get rid of his or her job. And that’s one of the dots that’s just not being connected by the people we elect.”

Wytkind also believes no one should cede their responsibility when it comes to ensuring the safety of autonomous vehicles.

“If the federal government doesn’t do its job the way it’s supposed to—and right now we’re not sure what it’s going to do—it may require that the state and local governments raise the bar to a higher level,” he said. “The federal government has a ton of work to do to take what is a pretty substantial apparatus of transportation safety regulations and right-size them and apply them to new technologies traversing across our highways. And nobody can say that the first step regulations that came out through NHTSA …(are) nearly enough. All those things really are just guidelines. We have to figure out what is the right regulation and who decides whether something is safe? Is it billionaire venture capitalists who want their goodie on the road. Or is it people who have earned a living and have made a career of calling balls and strikes about whether something’s safe or not. … Just because Uber Freight wants to drive a bunch of driverless trucks all over the highway doesn’t mean Uber knows how to do it safely.”

Finally, Wytkind is concerned about shared-use mobility providers like Uber and Lyft increasingly being asked to do more than provide first mile/last mile transportation options and being used to fill gaps in public transit around the country.

“The last mile has become a lot more than a mile and they have designs on a substantial portion of public transit and I think it’s going to create a potentially crushing effect on the books of public transit agencies that are already hurting for more resources,” he said. “Before we start creating this kind of hodgepodge notion that for the lower yield (transit) routes you’re just going to start introducing more and more on demand maybe small shuttle service, we need to understand what that means both from a service standpoint and from a safety standpoint and if you’re going to displace what are largely usually middle class jobs working in the public transit system space and transfer them over to either a Lyft or some other type driver or even to an autonomous vehicle, local and state governments should be worried about what that means for jobs and for tax revenues for the cities and states.”

Others however see the marriage of shared-use mobility and autonomous vehicles as something that can create greater mobility throughout a community or a region like Metropolitan Washington, D.C., which is serviced by the beleaguered Metro subway system.

“Autonomous vehicles could play a big role in the first mile/last mile transportation to get people to and from the Metro so we can capitalize on the Metro,” said Eta Davis, economic initiatives coordinator for Fairfax County (Virginia) Government. “We’ve talked about using autonomous vehicle shuttles to get to and from major job centers. … It could change dramatically how we provide services. … It could change how folks with disabilities can have access to jobs and enter the workforce and it could help folks age in place. We’ve got a growing aging population. It’s going to help people stay in their homes.”

How Will the Market for Autonomous Vehicles Develop?

But some analysts say getting to a future where there is less car ownership and more shared use autonomous vehicles could be easier said than done and it may take overcoming some existential hurdles.

“We’re going to need to figure out how we as a market want to consume automated technology,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “You talk to someone who is from a dense, urban, coastal market … and they will say this is going to be fantastic for cities. It’s going to do amazing work and everyone’s going to want to use shared services. And frankly that is not how most Americans live.”

Tomer said it’s impossible to know at this stage what the market for autonomous vehicles is going to look like.

“What I feel confident about is … we are not going to regulate out private ownership … because frankly it’s not in our American ethos,” he said. “So if you’re not going to get rid of individualization, you’re going to need the market from the shared-use side to be more competitive at the individual level to convince someone to not go buy their own car.”

The market for autonomous vehicles and any change in ownership models for many consumers may ultimately be determined not by how good the technology is but by how convenient the shared-use options become and how willing they are to change their behaviors to accommodate any inconveniences, Tomer said.