Connecting state and local government leaders
Autonomous vehicle companies often cut out city transportation agencies with state laws that preempt local regulations. City leaders say that “handcuffs” them as they try to manage traffic and curb space.
As autonomous vehicles hit the streets in more cities, local transportation officials want the companies behind those cars and trucks to make sure they’re talking regularly with city officials.
“When something goes wrong in your city streets, it’s not some far-off federal agency or even necessarily a state agency you’re calling. It’s your city council member,” said Stephanie Dock, the manager of the innovation division at the District Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C. “Cities have to be part of the conversation.”
Dock said cities need control over what’s going on—or at least the ability to influence it. Agencies are already reconfiguring streets to meet changing demands, she noted. “AVs must be designed for the streets that we have today,” she said. “We can’t be redesigning everything for AVs.”
For Diana Alarcon, the director of the transportation department in Nashville, communication is essential given her agency’s lack of authority. Alarcon said she learned that autonomous vehicles were coming to her booming city when she saw it in a local newspaper.
“I read about it in the paper and then the next day I saw them on the road. Can you imagine? I’m like, ‘Holy cow!’” she said at a panel discussion at the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference in Washington this week.
The only thing Nashville can do in regards to AVs is license them, like cabs. That’s because state lawmakers preempted the city from issuing any regulations on autonomous vehicles.
The robotaxi company Cruise, for instance, spent months mapping Nashville’s streets for its self-driving cars in anticipation of offering passenger service, but the day they were supposed to go live in Tennessee was the day that regulators shut them down in California. The company still isn’t giving passengers rides to honky-tonks on Lower Broadway Street, but it could decide to start operating at any time without notifying Nashville officials.
The lack of authority for the city agency poses problems, particularly downtown, where the department is trying to handle surges of tourists, downtown workers and local residents.
“I can have a million people on a six-block stretch of our downtown, walking up and down listening to all of the live music,” Alarcon explained. That means that streets are filled and many people are fighting for curb space, including buses, Uber drivers, scooter riders, delivery trucks and even pedestrians. “We’re all fighting over what can happen on the curb.”
But city officials are “handcuffed” when deciding how autonomous vehicles fit in that mix, she said. “These companies are going in at the federal and state level and having legislation passed that totally preempts the ability for cities to do anything, yet we’re the ones who are dealing with the problems.”
Viktoriya Wise, the chief of staff for the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency, also expressed frustration with California state regulators controlling how and when autonomous vehicles can operate in San Francisco.
The California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, decided in August to allow Cruise and Waymo, another robotaxi company, to pick up paying passengers anytime and anywhere in San Francisco. But not long afterward, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that oversees driverless vehicles in the state, suspended Cruise’s license following an Oct. 2 incident when one of the company’s cars ran over a pedestrian. The GM-owned company then pulled its vehicles from roads across the country and its CEO resigned. This week, Cruise offered to pay California $75,000 to resolve an investigation by the CPUC over the pedestrian incident.
Wise said state regulators seem to be taking the city’s complaints about “bricked” vehicles blocking traffic, robotaxis entering fire scenes and other safety concerns more seriously since the October incident.
“There’s been a change in tenor,” she said, noting that the city’s officials have been raising issues about autonomous vehicles’ impact on their streets in hearings and filings for years. Now, Wise said, state regulators are admitting the city officials were right.
And it’s not just regulators, she added. “Politicians and state legislators are very much interested in the issue and trying to figure out: What is the 21st century enforcement solution that we’re going to have [for AV companies]?”
But Wise said state regulators haven’t articulated the criteria they were using when they decided how and where the automated vehicles could operate. “What are the key performance indicators that are being used to say [they] can operate all the time?” She asked why state regulators decided to allow round-the-clock operations instead of a more graduated approach as the robotaxis showed improved performance.
Will Carry, the assistant commissioner for policy at the New York City Department of Transportation, said regulators understand that AV companies don’t want to have a different set of criteria to use for every major city they start operating in. But one way to avoid that would be for the federal government, rather than state governments, to certify that the driverless vehicles are “really ready” to operate “in our nation’s most challenging street environments.”
Driverless car companies can also benefit from working with city officials, added Francisca Stefan, senior deputy director of the Seattle Department of Transportation. That’s a lesson she gleaned from the city’s recent experience hosting the Major League Baseball All-Star game and Taylor Swift concerns. Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft did not work with the city to prepare for those events, but scooter companies did. “The scooter companies that we work with and share data with saw huge spikes in their ridership, because we were able to pre-plan and pre-deploy huge volumes of their devices,” Stefan said. “But the [ride-hailing cars] were stuck in traffic.”
Stefan also urged city officials to continue talking about their concerns about autonomous vehicles, even if they don’t have a formal regulatory role.
“Don’t stop,” she said. “Don’t stop articulating a city perspective. Just because preemption happens doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be at the table.”
The technology is still new enough that almost everyone is learning about the technology, business and city planning aspects of autonomous vehicles.
“It’s complicated,” she said. “None of us really truly understand how this works, right? Even the people writing the software making this happen are learning every single day. We have to keep talking … and helping people understand what they don’t know. [Autonomous vehicle technology] looks like a thing that we think we know. But it’s not operating like that thing that we think we know.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.