Are our cities and urban areas ready for the advent of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) such as public roadway roaming self-driving cars, sidewalk-going self-driving delivery bots, campus-based self-driving shuttle buses, and a plethora of other assorted driverless vehicles?
Maybe yes, or maybe not (more likely not so).
A newly released research report entitled “Developing Urban Mobility Policy in Response to Autonomous Vehicles” has been posted by the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) via the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Doing so under the auspices of their Autonomous Vehicles Policy Initiative (AVPI) program, this latest paper is part of an ongoing and overarching analysis that explores the practical and pragmatic considerations underlying the implementation of AVs at the city, state, and federal government levels.
I’m honored to indicate that this is a report that I’ve co-authored with esteemed colleague Mark Fagan, lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and head of the AVPI program there. For overall info about the AVPI program, see this link here.
For a free copy of the full report on developing urban mobility policies regarding AVs that I am briefly describing herein, see this link here.
Avid readers of my column are well-aware of my persistent calls for making sure that we are all looking at the self-driving forest and not just the trees alone (see the link here). In essence, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day excitement of having numerous driverless pilots and prototypes underway in a given municipality. That being said, retaining a big picture perspective will be vital toward ensuring that AV adoption is a balanced and satisfactory entrant into your urban area.
With that said, let’s take a quick look at some of the highlights of this new report.
First, as mindful background, the AVPI program has been actively engaged for several years in conducting research, teaching, and working with policymakers that are grappling with how to prepare for and sensibly cope with the burgeoning testing and fielding of all kinds of Autonomous Vehicles, especially ground-based self-driving vehicles.
In addition to the in-depth research and instructional efforts, the AVPI is also known for undertaking intense policy scrums that bring together governmental policymakers with AV experts, policy analysts, and legal experts. These are exhilarating face-to-face interactive sessions that immerse the participants into candid and quite fruitful dialogue about how to prudently and proactively cope with emerging AVs and self-driving efforts within their respective communities.
This most recent report contains an innovative scenario-based setting or simulation-oriented backdrop that can be used for energizing AV-related policy scrums all told.
In a sense, there is a foundation provided in the report to enable the undertaking of an AV-exploring policy simulation of sorts. Participants in a policy analysis session can take on various roles within the simulation and then see how things go when interacting with their fellow participants that have momentarily also assumed particular roles.
For example, you’ve got a mayor that is being besieged on all sides, whereby some local constituencies favor the arising use of AVs and meanwhile other local actors express notable concerns. Meanwhile, the AV vendors are pressing ahead earnestly to expand their local self-driving efforts.
But what about the impacts on the people of the city?
Some studies suggest that self-driving cars are tending to increase traffic congestion in already clogged city streets (see my coverage at this link here). That’s a problem worthy of anticipating and not getting blindsided with.
Some of the fleets of self-driving automobiles are only currently available in certain areas of the city. Does this deny fuller and more balanced access toward suitable mobility equity throughout the urban landscape?
There are AV vendors that are beginning to charge various fees for use of their driverless vehicles. Is the pricing creating a kind of divisiveness as to those that can afford to use this new transportation option versus those that cannot?
And so on it goes.
You see, a robust scenario is laid out that depicts a typical city caught in the midst of the relatively widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles. It can be a nightmare for those that have allowed events and efforts to proceed on a pell-mell basis alone. Though admittedly only a few cities are at this juncture or nearing it, right now, you can bet that in the next several years there will be many more localities that find themselves in this same boat.
Rather than waiting until the horse is already out of the barn, this multi-party policy development simulation can open the eyes of those that want to be ahead of the game. By anticipating the soon-to-be-upon-us future, policymakers have a crucial opportunity to guide their locality in a direction that will either avoid or at least mitigate many of the inadvertent adverse consequences that can arise with widespread and possibly uncontrolled AV use.
As stated in the report: “This simulation enables policymakers and stakeholders to develop the operating environment and regulations that position a municipality to tap the opportunities that AVs offer while minimizing the adverse consequences. This exercise is based on an anticipated scenario of how AVs may arrive in cities in the coming few years. It details the players and their interests. Using the descriptions provided, participants engage in a three-round simulation to reach a consensus on the best path forward. The simulation is designed as a facilitated simulation for use by both practitioners and students. It concludes with a framework for how policymakers can migrate from their current position to their desired state.”
A framework containing a curated set of potential policy actions is also provided.
Policymakers can consider which of the policy actions seem suitable for the scenario portrayed. More importantly, these are then intended to become active handy-dandy tools for the participants, allowing a leveraging of these same tools and techniques within their own respective localities.
A range of tools is proffered. These include fostering a cohesive mobility-as-a-service approach across the otherwise disparate transport options in a modern-day municipality. Local residents and visitors in today’s cities are overwhelmed with multi-modal transportation capabilities. Which should they use? How will the self-driving options fit within the transport fabric or landscape of the locality? Etc.
Another looming issue is going to be the question of data-sharing (note that in my columns, I’ve referred to this as the data collected via the “roving eye” of self-driving vehicles, see the link here). If a fleet of self-driving cars is collecting copious amounts of data about where locals are traveling, when they travel, and so on, who owns that data? Suppose the AV operator decides to use or sell the data, could this be a privacy intrusion?
Also, this collected data could be valuable information for local policymakers that wish to plan for and adjust transportation and infrastructure elements in their municipality. Will the AV vendors provide the data openly or insist that it is their own proprietary data and refuse to share it?
One other handy indication in the report consists of a matrix for guiding where a city sits currently on the scale of AV adoption and where it is heading.
As per the report: “The results of the simulation provide a point-in-time view of how a city wants AVs to support mobility. Rarely will the desired outcome be the current state. The results of the simulation can be used to help the city migrate from its current position to the desired state. A propensity matrix may be helpful in facilitating the transition. When examining urban mobility policies in the context of AV deployments, two major factors are useful to consider: (1) The pervasiveness of AVs in the municipality; and (2) The maturity of urban AV mobility policies.”
Where is your municipality in terms of its existing readiness for AV adoption considerations?
Many are behind the eight ball.
They are either relatively untouched as yet by self-driving efforts, or they have allowed self-driving efforts to arise organically or sporadically (doing so in a benevolent but rather unplanned manner).
As alluded to earlier, the emergence of self-driving options is taking place in a somewhat semi-random or haphazard manner in our cities.
This makes sense when you consider that AVs are a new form of transportation and there is a staggered start-stop phenomenon involved. One AV vendor makes solid progress. Another one perhaps finds themselves stymied and has to regroup. Some of the AV vendors are utterly focused on the technological facets and either unaware or not versed in the societal impacts that the introduction of self-driving options imbues upon an urban area.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, namely that it takes a village to bring to proper fruition the plethora of driverless transportation options. I continue to implore policymakers, AV vendors, AV experts, legal experts, policy analysts, and every stakeholder to get up-to-speed, begin your preparations now (don’t wait), and make sure that your city is not caught off-guard.
An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.