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Autonomous Vehicles

Advocates for autonomous vehicles (AVs) tout benefits like reduced vehicle crashes, lower emissions and less need for parking. This utopian vision, while appealing, will not happen if autonomous vehicles simply replace traditional vehicles within the status quo mobility model. To achieve benefits like reduced congestion and emissions and more transportation equity for the vulnerable, disabled, and elderly, the vision for autonomous vehicles – and the city and transportation planning behind it – needs to be shared and electric.


There are clear physical, psychological, and financial barriers to shared and electric autonomous vehicles that city policy will need to recognize and address – and this is where local leadership can shine. Cities leading on this front recognize that now is the time to institute common sense streets and traffic policies to prepare for safely integrating autonomous vehicles into their streetscape, like reducing speed limits on residential roads and emphasizing pedestrian, bike and transit safety through street design. They recognize that curb space will be an increasingly hot commodity, and are instituting policies that prioritize curb access for shared, high-occupancy or transit vehicles. They can prepare for and encourage shared driverless vehicles by creating or expanding HOV lanes and by planning for and implementing new roadway signage and improving roadways in anticipation of the needs of high-tech AVs. Anyone anticipating widespread use of AVs on city roads in the near-term also needs to recognize the issue of aging infrastructure; AVs require both higher quality roads and better signage to work as intended.


Cities that want to be proactive about long-term transportation planning can begin looking at sustainable funding mechanisms for transit and transportation, taking into consideration that in many cities these are funded significantly by things like fuel taxes, licenses, and parking and speeding fees – things that might very well decline with the rise of autonomous vehicles. Instituting or planning for high usage fees can combat the potential scenario where a worker takes their AV to work and then sends it home rather than paying for parking. Some cities are creating strategic partnerships with AV-producing companies and high-tech universities, trying to lead the way on development and implementation. Those who do should be cautious to keep public safety and interest paramount, and to enact policies that require data collected by academics and companies is shared with the cities who allow them to operate and innovate. Finally, there are both conversations and policy actions that cities can start now to prepare American citizens – who, despite the rise of the sharing economy, have a historical love affair with personal car ownership – for a shared mobility future. These include partnerships with companies like Zipcar and Car2Go, timeshare models and other shared-car-ownership programs.  


There is great potential in autonomous vehicles to help us create the shared, equitable, electric vision we have for the future of mobility in our cities – but it is clear that we need strategic innovative leadership to pave the way for their proper introduction. 

Why the Push for Autonomous Vehicles Should Slow Down, John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press, January 10th, 2017. Read more.

Why ‘Cardominiums’ Should Be in Our Driverless Future, Brian C. Willis, Governing, January 10th, 2017. Read more.

Breaking Down the Financial Impact of Self-Driving Cars, Frank Shafroth, Governing, January 1st, 2017. Read more.

Autonomous vehicles: a potential game changer for urban mobility, International Association of Public Transport, January 1st, 2017. Read more.

NACTO Policy Statement on Automated Vehicles, National Association of City Transportation Officials, June 22nd, 2016. Read more.

Former ZipCar co-founder and transportation consultant Robin Chase has a video that summarizes the issues at stake, as well as a new website dedicated to a shared, electric vision for autonomous vehicles. 

Pittsburg is leading the way on public-private partnerships that push the envelope on AVs, partnering with Carnegie Mellon University and Uber to get autonomous vehicles operating on city streets in 2016. The partnership has also developed and begun to install the Scalable Urban Traffic Control Program (SURTRAC), which uses advanced algorithms to adjust signals and reduce congestion. Pittsburg’s recently acquired grant funding to support the Smart Spines program - the hallmark item in its unsuccessful Smart Cities application - and which uses sensors to balance traffic demands from private autos, public transit and freight vehicles.


Seattle has begun to re-prioritize streets for transit and shared vehicles generally, and is turning its focus to the promise of “mobility hubs,” acknowledging AVs but wanting to fully integrate them with transit for affordability and equity reasons.


Due to the literature and research they’ve seen on the potential effects of autonomous vehicles, the Mayors of Atlanta and Detroit are looking to decrease the size of parking structures in new developments and long-term.


In January 2017, Las Vegas became the first city to have a fully autonomous public transit vehicle on the road. The 12-passenger NAVYA ARMA vehicle is entirely electric and designed to complement municipal transit systems by serving short routes in high traffic areas. The move is part of the city’s establishment of an Innovation District to test cutting edge technology  


Katya Szabados
(608) 262.5831