Top 5 Issues for 2017: Transportation & Infrastructure Policy: The Future is Now (for Autonomous Vehicles)

Issue: After years of saying they were still years away, autonomous vehicles and other technologies are here—or nearly here (at least to some degree). Uber has a fleet of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. Uber’s self-driving truck company, Otto, recently delivered a truck full of beer in Colorado. So now the question becomes how will state governments respond and how will they need to respond? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidelines last summer for states to consider in drafting autonomous vehicle legislation. But in trying to encourage the development of these technologies and perhaps reap an economic windfall, states will need to guard against doing more harm than good through legislation and regulation.

2016 saw many significant developments on the autonomous vehicle front. Among them, the deployment of Uber’s fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and the release of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) guidance on state and federal policy in that area. The promise of an autonomous vehicle future has the potential to be profound, many believe.

“The development and testing of automated vehicles really presents a significant economic opportunity for us and there’s also the opportunity for us to increase safety,” said Damon Porter, director of state government affairs at the Association of Global Automakers during remarks at the CSG National Conference in Colonial Williamsburg in December.

In the realm of safety, automakers have their eye on one key number—35,092. That was the number of traffic fatalities in the United States in 2015.

“Ninety-four percent were the result of human driving error,” Porter said. “And so we need to think about how we can improve safety and how we can make our cars safer. Autonomous vehicles really are going to be the way because they’re going to help us in terms of reducing the human driver error impact.”

But there is another key motivation on the minds of those pushing for a rapid deployment of autonomous vehicles—improving mobility for all Americans.

“This is really going to enable mobility and independence for the disabled, the blind, those in a wheelchair, even the elderly who may not be able to drive anymore,” said Chan Lieu, senior legislative advisor at the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, during a session at Transportation for America’s (T4America) Capital Ideas II conference in Sacramento in November.

Despite all the promise of autonomous vehicles and despite so much recent activity in the field though, many warn that there is still much that is unknown about when the future will really arrive—and how.

“It’s really uncertain in terms of when we will see fully automated cars on the public roads and it’s really uncertain to determine what year we’ll see fully automated cars and in what capacity,” said Porter. “Will it be in the truck platooning area first? Will it be in ridesharing with Uber or Lyft? Or will it be in the capacity of you going to your local dealer and buying a fully automated car?”

Lieu noted that Ford and Lyft are both talking about 2021 as the year for at least limited small scale deployments. Moody’s has forecast that the majority of vehicles in the fleet won’t be autonomous until 2045 with the turnover of the entire fleet to autonomous vehicles not expected until 2050 at the earliest. Many believe deployment of the vehicles will happen faster in cities, where the economics make the most sense.

What has some concerned is what happens during the intervening years.

“The reality is that on our public roads we are going to experience a certain percentage of cars with no automation,” said Porter. “We will experience a certain percentage of cars with some automation. We will experience a percentage of cars with full automation. And so the question is: how do all those cars speak to each other? How do those cars speak with the infrastructure and the traffic signals? How do we have a fully integrated transportation network?”

In that regard, Porter said it’s important not to lose sight of the issue of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. In late 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a regulation that would require automakers to build V2V communications and safety technology into all new light-duty vehicles. Automakers are also concerned about a proposed FCC rule on whether the 5.9 gigahertz band originally intended for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) used in V2V should be shared with Wi-Fi.

NHTSA Guidance on Autonomous Vehicles

Of course NHTSA also weighed in on autonomous vehicle policy itself in 2016 in a 116-page document that seeks to define the responsibilities of the federal and state governments in regulating testing and deployment. It included vehicle performance guidance, model state policy and two sections on regulatory tools.  

“NHTSA has put out this very careful, nimble and flexible approach to guidance,” Porter said. “The guidance does not necessarily need to be codified in states because it will continue to evolve and change as the technology and innovation changes. There have been lots of folks including states that have weighed in with comments … in terms of how the guidance can be sharper and how it can provide a clearer roadmap for states. We believe that a nimble and flexible approach to these rulemaking procedures should be done at the national level so that we have a consistent and cohesive approach to federal policy and also can give guidance to the states in terms of where they want to go.”

Porter said he saw intense interest from state policymakers around the country in 2016 who wanted to know how they could engage on autonomous vehicles.

“Some have viewed this issue from an economic development standpoint: How do we get involved with automated vehicles to attract or retain businesses to do research and development, to move the facilities to our state to invest dollars?” he said. “And while I understand the importance from a state perspective of generating revenue and creating jobs … our biggest concern right now is that we have seen states like California, Nevada, the District of Columbia and others already enact automated vehicle legislation. We’re seeing other states consider this and this creates the potential for a patchwork of laws that will really create uncertainty for manufacturers.”

For automakers, such a patchwork would raise a host of questions that could make it difficult for all states to achieve the autonomous vehicle future on the same timetable.

“What happens if state A passes an autonomous vehicle law with respect to testing that narrowly defines what automated features are and the state next door does nothing?” Porter asked. “Will the cars that have automated features … be permitted to cross the state lines or will they not, for example? This is a significant public policy question that we need to have those states engage. More importantly, our manufacturers cannot design and develop 50 different types of vehicles. We need to be able to develop one car with a national standard that is available to be sold in all 50 states.”

It can be easy for states to overreach and become too specific in the definitions of the technologies they’re seeking to regulate in legislation, Porter said. He noted that some vehicles being sold today that include some automated vehicle technology features would be prohibited under some of the bills he saw introduced in 2016. Porter also sees the potential for conflict if cities decide they want a piece of the regulatory action and when states decide they need to take another bite at the legislative apple.

“The city of Boston, for example, … issued an executive order on testing,” he said. “The same day or the day after, the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts issued his own executive order on testing. … The state of Michigan has passed a series of automated vehicle laws to try to clarify what they enacted several years before and this again creates one of the challenges that we’re seeing in states that are rushing to keep up with the technology. Technology and innovation will always outpace public policy and what we’re seeing now is states like Florida and Michigan, which passed automated vehicle bills in the last few years having to go back every year and to redefine, to re-clarify what automated vehicle definitions are and who is an operator. This is really starting to create some uncertainty in the marketplace.”

Lieu also had a word of caution for the legislative process.

“Once you introduce a bill, it’s kind of out of your hands,” he said. “You can’t always control what the ultimate outcome is going to be. We saw in California what that kind of morphed into. Now I would say California is kind of on their back foot in terms of deployment. … I don’t necessarily think that legislation is always the first answer. … What’s the best way to demonstrate that yes you are open for business and you want to see this come to that municipality while at the same time avoiding legislation that really kind of gets stuff fixed in place that really doesn’t incentivize deployment?”

Porter argued there are a couple of places that are doing things right without changing the law. The city of Columbus, which won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge in 2016, has leveraged $50 million in grant funding into more than $100 million, which will allow it to deploy new technologies to improve transportation, among other things. Ohio Governor John Kasich has also designated a 35-mile stretch of U.S. 33 as an autonomous vehicle testing corridor.

“Again, no laws, no rules have been changed and yet Ohio and the city of Columbus will become one of the first communities with a fully integrated transportation network on the connected side,” Porter said.

Another example is the Commonwealth of Virginia, Porter said, where Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and others are working to test autonomous vehicle features and designs and where the state departments of transportation, motor vehicles and highway patrol are working to ensure safety without changing any laws.

“We believe in the short term this is the way states should address this issue and to the extent you need to change laws or modify or clarify laws, they should be done in a very narrow scope,” Porter said. For example, the traditional areas that states have focused on in transportation, which are licensing and registration and insurance or where you have laws that would prohibit the ability of testing to continue. For example, the state of New York, which has a very difficult provision in the law which requires one hand on the wheel. We believe that is perhaps one area where states should modify and clarify their laws. But to the extent states really believe they need to put on the books that they’re open for business with respect to automated vehicle technology or that they want to go even further in terms of defining or clarifying who is the operator or how the car should be designed to perform is really going to inhibit your state to be a leader in this regard.”

But some believe it will be hard for states to maintain a hands-off approach.

“I think that’s a really difficult line for states to be walking to be totally honest,” said Sahar Shirazi of the Governor’s Office of Planning & Research in California during the T4America conference. “On the one hand you want to enable this industry and this technology to help and benefit your communities and on the other hand you don’t want to have it so open that they can do whatever they want and it undermines all the goals (of the state). What is that line and where is that difference between regulation and guidance that you might need to provide? I would say as a state we’re still kind of struggling with that.”

And others argue state policymakers and others should lend a guiding hand now to avoid what they see as a less than ideal autonomous future.

“You can imagine a scenario where this technology does not have any policy alongside it and induces a lot of demand and displaces a lot of the progress we’ve made in walking and biking, possibly erodes transit by making driving a more enticing option for people and then really starts to encourage sprawl and change our land use,” said Corinne Kisner, director of policy and special projects at the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “Or you can imagine a scenario where we really guide this technology to be a shared fleet deployment with electric vehicles instead of gas-powered vehicles, where we start to really look proactively at our parking policy to free up land and make it more available for transit and for walking and biking and where we start to apply the automated technology to transit vehicles as well and not just personal vehicles.”

Shirazi believes states can play a key role by supporting the cities and counties where autonomous vehicle testing and pilots are taking place by providing technical assistance and seed funding.

Those pilot projects can be critical when it comes to convincing the general public that autonomous vehicles are safe, Lieu noted.

“Uber is testing (autonomous vehicles) in Pittsburgh and that’s allowing everyday consumers to use their app to get into a vehicle—obviously with a test driver behind the wheel and another engineer in the passenger seat monitoring the system to make sure it’s performing the way that it should be,” he said. “But it’s a way for people to experience the technology and realize this is not as scary as (they) initially feared. … Technology is scary. People are not very comfortable with the idea of surrendering control of a vehicle to a system. But I would argue that right now we are very comfortable pressing a button when you get on an elevator. Think back 50 years ago. There were elevator operators who controlled that manually. … That’s going to require time. It’s going to require education.”

Lieu said there may be setbacks along the way as well.

“I think this process of bringing fully automated vehicles to the market is going to involve a fair amount of failure but the idea is you learn from all of this and so there’s definitely going to have to be a fair amount of patience from the public and from policymakers,” Lieu said.

But many believe the benefits to safety, mobility and other metrics will make the journey to an autonomous vehicle future all worth it in the end.

Further Reading & Resources

Autonomous & Connected Vehicle Technologies

Impacts of Technology on Planning for Cities & States

Smart Cities