A man walks away from a red EasyMile shuttle bus.
A passenger leaves an EasyMile driverless shuttle bus at the Riverside EpiCenter in Austell, Georgia in 2017. David Goldman/AP

Cities Have Taken the Lead in Regulating Driverless Vehicles

While federal and state governments take a back seat, cities are driving the regulation of autonomous vehicles.

The robots haven’t invaded. Instead, they were invited.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will soon be commonplace on our streets, and self-driving vehicles will become an everyday reality. Everyone is now speculating on when the robots will be on our roads, but in many American cities and abroad, companies are already testing self-driving cars in real-world conditions.

In many cases, this embrace of autonomous vehicle testing is an attempt by policy makers and stakeholders to get ahead of the curve, to understand and mold the way AVs will work in cities. Yet the best way to understand how these self-driving cars can look in your community is to put them on the road. Clarity is crucial as city leaders are already preparing for their arrival: Fifty percent of large American cities are now exploring how to integrate AVs into their long-term transportation plans. Cities are leading the way with experimentation and regulation, and we are seeing inventive approaches to autonomous vehicle testing taking place in communities across America.  

Several different regulations and laws currently under deliberation could greatly affect the future of autonomous vehicle rollouts: City governments control the test sites and streets, but both federal and state governments play a significant role in the regulations surrounding the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Yet state and federal legislation and regulations on autonomous vehicles have been largely permissive with a focus on getting the technology on the streets. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) have traditionally developed the nationwide safety standards for vehicles, and they are leading the bulk of the federal response to emerging AV technology. Just recently, USDOT released updated guidance, rather than laws or regulations, concerning autonomous vehicles in a new report, Preparing for the Future of Transportation, Automated Vehicles 3.0. The report covers a range of measures including specifically approaching AVs separately from human-driven vehicles by providing answers on areas like how to approach vehicles without steering wheels and other traditional human-driven vehicle standards.

State policies—or lack thereof—are also playing a significant role in cities’ pursuit of AV piloting. Between 2011 and 2017, 22 states passed 46 bills related to AV usage—while five governors signed executive orders encouraging their development. But many of the state laws passed were unnecessary, as the states had no existing laws prohibiting AV pilot programs. This year another boom in state action on AV policy is underway, with 98 bills in 28 states having been introduced, debated, or passed thus far.

The most dramatic example of a state leader’s impact on AVs comes from Arizona. Governor Doug Ducey was already known to favor innovation and technology-friendly regulations when he signed an AV executive order in 2015. Ducey then moved even more aggressively to using the state as a testing ground. Consequently, Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler became hosts to two of the most high-profile AV pilots in the country. And, earlier this year, Tempe was the site of the first AV-related fatality.

With the limited direction from the federal and state government, cities throughout the country are making their own rules for AV pilots. Autonomous vehicle pilots range from informal agreements to structured contracts between a city and company.

The latest National League of Cities report, Autonomous Vehicle Pilots in Cities, explores what is happening on the ground now. We find that there are a number of ways that cities are shaping the way we think about piloting and deploying autonomous vehicles.

  • Arlington, Texas, a city of 390,000 people, is piloting a fixed-route, wheelchair-accessible autonomous shuttle on roads that are closed to other traffic. The city council had three goals for the AV pilot: a better understanding of AV technology, and how it might fit into Arlington’s mobility landscape; increased opportunity for public engagement and education by familiarizing residents with AVs; and finally, positioning Arlington as an innovative city.

The city leased two low-speed shuttles from France-based EasyMile. The shuttles run on an existing path and carry passengers between parking lots and sporting and concert venues. Each shuttle has an on-board information ambassador who can operate the shuttles manually if necessary. Since August of 2017 the shuttle has provided over 1,500 rides with overwhelmingly positive reception from passengers. Following the success of the initial pilot, the city is planning a second phase of on-street testing.

  • Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, presents a unique AV pilot case study, both in terms of the longevity and vast geographic reach of the program. Chandler was one of the first cities in the country to host an AV pilot, and AVs have been present since 2016. These driverless vehicles roam all 65 square miles of the city as well as neighboring jurisdictions.

Because of its relationship with the state government, Chandler does not have formal agreements with any AV developers. The city instead focuses on easing the transition to full deployment through zoning changes and other policies. The city has permitted the company Waymo to launch a pilot that includes fully autonomous vehicles with no safety driver.

AV pilots represent the first chapter in a new era of mobility. Despite the varied approaches and outcomes, best practices are starting to surface. Cities are leading in this new era of autonomous mobility with a variety of approaches to AV pilots, and while federal and additional state regulation is likely coming, it is ultimately in cities where we are seeing experimentation and innovation right now.

The interplay between city, state, and the federal government will be critical, but ultimately cities need to be in the driver’s seat as we transform from the current mobility environment to our autonomous future.

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