Connecting state and local government leaders
States and localities will have a key role in ensuring vulnerable communities aren’t harmed by the new transportation technology, or miss out on its benefits.
State and local officials need to act proactively to make sure that widespread use of self-driving vehicles doesn’t leave out historically disadvantaged communities, a team of researchers from the Urban Institute warned in a new report.
The researchers said a broad shift from human drivers to software-piloted vehicles could help poor people and non-white communities, if the technology can reduce the number of traffic deaths and cut down on the air pollution that disproportionately affects those residents. Autonomous vehicles could also increase transportation options for older people or people with disabilities, the Urban analysts said.
But none of those advantages are guaranteed, they cautioned.
“The degree to which [autonomous vehicles] change the transportation system and society overall will be mediated by regulatory choices at the local, state and federal levels,” the researchers wrote in their report.
“If [autonomous vehicles] ultimately reinforce inequitable access to transportation, reduce public transit use, increase [the amount of driving], increase congestion and exacerbate the causes of climate change, this technological advancement may ultimately fall short of its full promise—or even worsen the existing problems endemic to the automobile-dominated US transportation system,” they added.
The issue is increasingly salient, as fully autonomous taxis have started serving passengers in San Francisco (with plans to expand to Phoenix and Austin). Meanwhile, both General Motors and Ford have asked the federal government to produce cars that don’t have basic controls for human drivers, such as steering wheels or rear-view mirrors—a request that city transportation officials have opposed.
Automakers and their allies emphasize the potential that autonomous vehicles have for improving roadways, even if they don’t change how much Americans depend on cars and trucks to get around.
“I think the real question is not whether AVs [autonomous vehicles] are equitable, but are AVs more equitable than existing transportation? If the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ that’s good. That’s progress,” said Hilary Cain, the vice president for technology, innovation and mobility policy at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto industry group.
Cain told participants during an Urban Institute event that autonomous vehicles could provide transportation options to people in transit deserts. The self-driving cars could also expand the reach of bus and subway networks by connecting people to stations they otherwise might live too far away from to easily use, she said.
She also expressed confidence that technology onboard autonomous vehicles would be better than human drivers at detecting pedestrians, which could help reduce the growing toll of U.S. traffic deaths.
Anil Lewis, the executive director for blindness initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, said autonomous vehicles could also improve the range of destinations someone in an underserved community could reach.
“As a black male who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, I lived in inner-city neighborhoods that had access to public transportation. But I didn’t have access to areas that public transportation wouldn’t get me to,” he said. “That prohibited me from accessing jobs, specific entertainment venues, [et cetera]. So it’s not just about living in a transportation desert. It’s about opening up the world to everyone equally.”
More autonomous vehicles would help people who are blind or have disabilities, as well as people who break their legs or suffer from other temporary disabilities, Lewis added.
Role for States and Cities
But the Urban report stressed that states and cities can also improve the equity outcomes of autonomous vehicles, if they play an assertive role in areas such as ride-hailing operations and street design.
The researchers noted that, as of this summer, lawmakers in 41 states and the District of Columbia have passed a total of 122 laws related to autonomous vehicles.
“Since no federal legislation thus far has directly addressed AVs and no federal departments have introduced binding regulations on AV design or manufacture, states have generally acted alone. Legislative approaches to AV regulations vary immensely between states,” the Urban researchers added.
Yonah Freemark, an influential figure in urbanist circles and one of the authors of the report, presented its findings at the event last week. The report’s other authors are Christina Stacy, Olivia Fiol and Jorge Morales-Burnett.
They suggested several ways that state and local governments could shape autonomous vehicle outcomes, even though the federal government makes almost all decisions regarding vehicle design.
One of the most basic things states and localities could do is require the auto owners to report on how their vehicles are performing, which could “identify negative externalities” that the vehicles cause, the Urban researchers wrote.
The researchers outlined other ways that local officials could improve outcomes, including:
- Offering owners credits if they can prove they powered their vehicles with renewable energy.
- Taxing the “empty” miles AVs drive without passengers, a policy that could be expanded to non-autonomous vehicles, too.
- Adjust fees on ride-hailing trips to encourage shared rides, rather than individual ones.
- Impose guarantees that autonomous vehicles would service all sections of a community.
- Encourage ride-hailing operators with autonomous vehicles to offer ways of summoning them that don’t depend on a smartphone or bank account, through the use of phone calls, kiosks or other methods.
- Add subsidies for rides linked to transit trips.
If autonomous vehicles prove to be safer than human drivers, localities could impose geographic restrictions for places where only autonomous vehicles could operate.
“Localities could more rapidly implement geofencing in downtown, low car-ownership neighborhoods, shopping centers and other employment areas with fewer equity concerns, especially if they simultaneously improve public transportation services,” the Urban researchers wrote.
“This approach has the potential to transform often dangerous streets into multi-use places that preserve the ability for vehicle movement but also allow for child’s play and other public use. Localities could also use geofencing to establish pedestrian zones, which would prevent any vehicles—including AVs—from entering sensitive areas,” they added.
City Officials Weigh in With Feds
But the National Association of City Transportation Officials has cautioned that the rapid rollout of autonomous vehicles “will not result in substantive safety, sustainability or equity gains” without a major overhaul of how streets are designed.
The group called on federal regulators to deny requests from Ford and General Motors to allow specially designed autonomous vehicles on the road.
General Motors asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for exemptions from safety standards for its Origin vehicles, which do not have a steering wheel, pedals, manual turn signals or mirrors. The vehicles also have carriage-style seating, meaning people in the front seat sit facing backward while occupants in the rear seat face forward.
Ford is also asking for exemptions, but its proposal is markedly different from GM’s. Ford’s vehicle (it did not provide a name) could run in either autonomous or human-operated modes. Occupants could not switch between those modes while the vehicle is running, and Ford intends that only specially trained drivers would be able to operate them. The vehicles would be part of fleets for ride-hailing and package delivery services and would not be available to individual customers.
Still, NACTO objected to both proposals for similar reasons. The group said the petitions don’t show that the cars would operate safely when they are automated.
Vehicle manufacturers should “physically demonstrate” to federal regulators how the technology would work to replace safety features like rearview mirrors or tire pressure gauges, including what backup systems are in place if the software fails.
When federal safety regulations are applied to automated driving systems, NACTO argued, “the goal should also be to provide safety information to the passengers so a passenger can identify whether or not they are in a defective vehicle.”
NACTO said neither automaker met that standard.
The city transportation officials noted their group included many members who have overseen the deployment of autonomous vehicles on their streets.
But NACTO was wary of the car manufacturers’ claims that putting more autonomous vehicles on the street would improve equity by expanding the availability of services like app-based ride-booking.
“Numerous evaluations of the outcomes of ride hail services have found that ride hail increases total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and does not meaningfully improve transportation security for underserved populations,” NACTO wrote in letters to the federal regulators.
The group pointed to evidence that suggests older adults are less likely to use app-hailed transportation services, like Lyft and Uber. The letters also highlighted gaps with regulations to ensure that a substantial portion of ride-booking fleets are wheelchair accessible.
NACTO even warned that more autonomous vehicles could result in more dangerous streets, particularly because the vehicles would tend to be heavier than traditional cars and trucks and would therefore be more likely to hurt people in a crash.
If NHTSA allows the automakers to get their exemption, the city transportation officials asked the federal government to tighten the conditions for doing so.
For example, they asked for a limit of 250 vehicles deployed to any one city, an ability for city officials to limit where in a city they can operate, a phone number to be displayed on self-driving vehicles that the public can use to report driving concerns, and access by city officials to safety data NHTSA collects from the automakers on the performance of the vehicles.
The federal agency that will decide whether to grant the exemptions is also working on broader efforts to accommodate autonomous vehicles within its regulatory framework. But NHTSA has missed many congressional deadlines for updating regulations and critics say it’s been too deferential to automakers.
Cain, the auto industry representative at the Urban event, expressed confidence that NHTSA would ensure a smooth transition to autonomous vehicles.
“NHTSA’s job is literally to make sure that vehicles on the U.S. roadways are safe. And that is why they're going through the process,” she said. “I think we have to have faith that they are going to do their job, and that, once they release updated regulations, that they will strike that balance of allowing for the innovative potential of this technology while also preserving motor vehicle safety.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.