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It’s Not Too Early for Cities to Craft AV Regulation

Autonomous vehicle technology is primed to move into any number of use cases, and cities should begin the conversation about how they want to shape this new mobility horizon – or risk being shaped by it.

autonomous bus concept illustration
Shutterstock/Golden Sikorka
The delivery of goods, public transit and taxis are all use cases for autonomous vehicles being batted around in transportation circles.

With the technology taking so many possible directions, it can be difficult for cities to discuss and draft the appropriate regulatory environment to both enable AVs and guide them along a path of public good.

However, it’s not too soon to be thinking about the technology – and its impacts – said Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure in Pittsburgh. It’s cities who should have the most say in the regulation of AVs, she added.

“Let there be some local control so that we can ground it in local priorities and local visions,” Ricks said during a CoMotion webinar Wednesday.

“Everything is local in this business,” echoed Henry Greenidge, fellow-in-residence at the New York University McSilver Institute of Poverty Policy and Research. “You can’t have a cookie-cutter approach to solving some of these mobility issues in local areas. And so we need to figure that out as well.”

That local control can help to guide AVs toward achieving city goals around mobility, sustainability and equity, officials say, much like similar regulations guiding the rollout of micro-mobility operators.

With cities guiding the regulatory conversation, they can steer AVs away from frameworks that only benefit the private-sector companies operating them and move the technology toward higher ideas like forming comprehensive transportation networks.

“I think that’s something we really can’t talk enough about,” Ricks said. “How do you really have intermodal, seamless connectivity between the different types of systems that are there — micro-mobility systems, the vehicle systems, the mass transit systems.”

In Pittsburgh, Ricks and other transportation officials are working to create “not just adjacent mobility systems, but truly integrated mobility systems,” she said.

“So we maybe can move away from this notion of point-to-point autonomous travel where you’re in one vehicle for that entire trip, and think more about having it be an integrated system. I think that’s something we really need to press forward on,” Ricks continued.

She would like to see cities take an active role to avoid the "walled garden" scenario, where companies like Uber or Lyft are providing integrated service with little input from public partners.

So what will the mobility marketplace look like? What AV modes can we expect to get fleshed out sooner, rather than later?

“I think that you’re going to see the goods delivery happen first, followed by the passenger service,” Greenidge said in his remarks.

The AV taxi model also has potential, he added.

“I think it offers a different solution for the cities that I’m talking with they are focused on making sure that the elderly, the youth, the accessibility community, their needs are all met in a way that many of the AV transit scenarios have not demonstrated their purpose just yet,” said Greenidge.

Anthony Townsend, author of the book Ghost Road, which analyzes the profound impacts of the autonomous movement, believes public transit is a domain for AVs.

“The AV transit thing, I think, is coming,” Townsend said Wednesday. “It’s going to go slowly. But I think it’s there.” 

Pittsburgh is host to six AV testers. And bringing autonomy to public transit could significantly reduce the operating costs, Ricks said.

“However, our public has really indicated that they would not be comfortable riding a mass transit vehicle if there wasn’t the stewardship of that driver with them to help them if they have any kind of a disability, to just feel safe,” she added.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.