Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
As AVs trickle onto city streets, public leaders should set the rules of the road—before the industry does.
In the middle of the 20th century, brilliant marketing by the American auto industry helped convince the federal government to build the interstate highways on the public dime, lancing cities and stringing them like jewels on an asphalt strand.
Eighty years later, the next automotive revolution is turning from an “if” to a “when,” with huge implications for urban life. Top auto manufacturers promise fully autonomous vehicles by 2021. Self-driving Ubers already rove the streets of Pittsburgh, Tempe, and San Francisco, and a wave of robo-test rides is coming to Phoenix, courtesy of Waymo.
Auto industry and tech leaders promise that autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will expand mobility, slash accidents, ease congestion, and rejigger Americans’ default preference towards personal car ownership—even as the question of whether people really want these cars has been largely set aside. So far, conversations between government and automakers have been about how to regulate these vehicles and share the data that comes out of them. Eventually, talk will turn to the infrastructure required to achieve the full suite of supposed benefits from AVs—and how the public is going to pay for it all.
After all, self-driving cars aren’t being designed to simply replace our existing jalopies. Fully connected vehicles are supposed to communicate with each other and the driving environment. Streetlights and roadbeds will need to be studded with a galaxy of smart sensors. Broadband demand will grow exponentially in order to conduct these epic symphonies of data. Centralized processing platforms will be critical to managing it. Physical upgrades are likely coming to the road—autonomous ride-sharing services may be eager to see curbside loading docks and special rights-of-way that let them travel smoothly in certain parts of town.
None of this will be cheap. Private parties may help finance some of these investments, but taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill to support the AV revolution. That should raise questions.
Just look at the interstates, America’s earlier transportation marvel. Those roads were a massive boon for car makers, and a glue for regional travel and shipping networks. But in cities, they destroyed neighborhoods, isolated others, and left pollution and neglect in their wake. Even the feds have admitted that plowing interstates through urban centers wasn’t the brightest idea, and the record shows private interests played a heavy hand in that decision.
Installing sensors and broadband connections may not physically shred the urban fabric as aggressively as highways did. But just as citizens paid for that era of car-fueled renewal, it is citizens whose dollars will build the self-driving cities of the future, whatever form they take. Will they be sprawling or dense? Decongested or hellaciously jammed? More democratic or less? These are decisions that communities and their leaders need to shape. But some early examples of how the AV industry is working with government, insofar as data-sharing and regulations are concerned, show how private interests could steer the agenda away from what’s good for cities.
Uber’s relationship with Pittsburgh, for example, has been largely one way. The city never formalized a data-sharing agreement or any requirement that Uber invest in public infrastructure in exchange for piloting self-driving vehicles on public streets. Uber does not share its data with Pittsburgh (beyond what it makes available to everyone), and has declined the city’s requests to give back investment and support on multiple occasions. The company has also asked for a slew of road infrastructure improvements and right-of-way agreements from the city, and has gone on testing. Without state regulations in place yet, the city has little authority to stop it. (In an interview earlier this year, Pittsburgh leaders said they’re revamping their procurement process to ensure fair outcomes in future partnerships.)
Gregory Rodriguez, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who works with municipalities embracing new transportation technologies, warns that there needs to be a give and take. “Cities don’t want to miss out on the innovation bandwagon and are actively courting technology across the country, which is great and exciting,” he says. “But if cities aren’t learning anything from these partnerships, local officials and citizens are going to push back and say: Why do tech companies get everything and we get nothing?”
As another example, state lawmakers establishing the rules of the road aren’t necessarily as attuned to the linguistic distinctions of the AV universe as industry leaders are. General Motors was reportedly connected to a series of bills introduced in four states—Georgia, Maryland, Illinois, and Tennessee—that were written in such a way that would have permitted automakers alone to deploy AVs on public roads. That means that companies building and testing AV software—like Waymo and Uber—wouldn’t be allowed, while General Motors, Ford, and other traditional manufacturers would.
Tech industry groups criticized this bill as anti-competitive, which could allow, they argued, more room for safety missteps. The legislation didn’t pass as written, but it’s not hard to imagine companies or services attempting to monopolize state or local markets in the future. “Being wed to companies that don’t share your vision can definitely have negative ramifications long term,“ says Brenna Berman, the chief information officer for the city of Chicago, speaking in broad terms about the risk of jumping into bed with a single product or service.
With federal policy, too, the goals of automakers may not always line up with what’s good for cities. Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Volvo, Uber, Lyft, and others continue to lobby congressional policymakers for a “national framework” regulating safety performance standards, so as to avoid 50 versions of AV requirements. The DOT passed a landmark piece of policy guidance last fall for AV development (the new administration has plans to revisit it). Avoiding a patchwork of regulations seems logical at the state level, but the safety standards that work for rural Maine may not work for downtown Dallas.
“Every other time we’ve tried to apply uniform national guidelines, it’s utterly failed for cities,” says Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. The interstates are a prime example, and Reynolds adds that when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration comes up with a new testing framework for regular cars, it's usually with the safety of drivers in mind. “They hardly ever include real consideration of transit, biking, and walking,” she says. While the industry pushes for national AV standards, cities may want to retain local control over things like speed limits, designating special AV zones, and setting trip fees in order to meet the safety needs of their specific neighborhoods.
So will the companies do the ordering, while cities pick up the tab? It’s still early to say, and some cities are working to establish their own agenda ahead of the AV makers. The Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization is doing laudable work developing a long-term plan for AV technology that spans local jurisdictions. New York City has managed to pry more data from ride-sharing companies than pretty much anywhere else, information that’s being used to study local traffic patterns. Columbus, Ohio, won the DOT’s Smart Cities Challenge in 2016, thanks to the clear set of social priorities it articulated in its proposal to equip the city with electric and autonomous transit.
“That challenge showed us that the folks in city hall have to keep an eye on who they work for,” says Mark Dowd, the former DOT and White House senior advisor who helped architect the Smart Cities Challenge. “They have to have public engagement, stakeholder engagement, to make sure their solutions are in line for their citizens.”
Likewise, companies like Ford and Nissan have wisely tapped into networks of city leaders to solicit feedback on what their challenges are and how robo-cars can help rather than hinder those cities’ efforts to achieve their transportation needs.
There is a separate question about whether autonomous vehicles are desirable within urban centers. Ending traffic fatalities and promoting the shared use of vehicles sounds fantastic, but many warn of AV-fueled congestion, and investing in old-fashioned public transportation might accomplish the same goals more affordably and equitably. Will any cities resist the assumption that these vehicles are needed? There’s certainly been pushback by locals in some areas, including places where testing is already happening. Meanwhile, nearly 75 percent of American consumers apparently doubt AVs will ever be safe.
Whether or not AVs are as good an idea as the tech evangelists and the federal government seem to believe, they are already on public roads. Now is the time for cities to establish what they want from them. Where should AVs be allowed? How fast should they be able to drive? What neighborhoods will they serve? Whose jobs will they take? There aren’t any clear answers yet, but citizens, planners, law enforcement, and tech experts should get their priorities in line as these machines demand more space, more stuff, and more taxpayer dollars in order to operate. Just because the cars can drive themselves doesn’t mean cities should get taken for a ride.