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AVs Need Oversight to Realize Societal Benefits, Experts Say

The Urban Institute’s new report around autonomous vehicles advises they have the potential to greatly improve the transportation systems in the United States, with the proposed set of regulatory controls and incentives.

Autonomous vehicles (AV) have the potential to reduce crashes, improve transportation equity and grow transit ridership — if all levels of government step in with the proper regulations and oversight, those watching the space contend.

“Ultimately, we think that AVs can play an important role in improving the U.S. transportation system, but only if they are regulated appropriately,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate and the research director at the Urban Institute.

Freemark was making his comments during a policy forum hosted by the Urban Institute on Sept. 22. The forum was discussing recent research by the institute into the many issues surrounding autonomous vehicles.

Freemark and fellow researchers concluded the technology can be a force for good in the transportation sector, seeing as it can expand access to transportation independence for people with disabilities, the elderly and others with few transportation choices. And since most vehicular accidents are the result of some form of driver behavior, AVs could ultimately make roadways safer.

But it will take effective regulation at all levels of government to ensure these outcomes, researchers say.

“We believe strongly that given the potential negative impacts of AVs, we need to develop a regulatory environment, and multiple levels of government that is designed to address them,” said Freemark, pointing to numerous bad outcomes such as a world where AVs encourage more car travel, making roadways more congested, accelerating more development in farther out suburban areas, and widening societal disparities.

Federal agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are at work developing regulations around the operations of AVs, said Hilary Cain, vice president for technology, innovation and mobility policy at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

However, one of her concerns is, “we won’t have a regulatory framework in place that supports and fosters the technology here, and then we’ll end up running the AV industry out of the United States.”

“They [NHTSA] have a lot of work ahead of them,” she added, speaking on the Urban Institute panel. “There’s a lot of standards that they still need to go through and update.”

A public fear of AVs could also spook policymakers who may then pump the brakes on regulations and deployment of AVs, said Anil Lewis, executive director of blindness initiatives for the National Federation for the Blind.

“What most frightens me is the move for the implementation of this technology is going to be subjected to the societal fears that we as people with disabilities have to deal with every day,” said Lewis, in some of his comments on the panel. “I’m hoping that we are able to educate the public in a way that those fears can be cast aside.”

If the public policy to enable and advance the development of AVs as new, creative and equitable approaches to transportation, they can help to better connect riders to public transit, lower the cost of ride-hailing or even function as mobile retail or health-care outlets, say observers.

“AVs have an opportunity to serve as sort of appendages to public transportation systems, and help people get into those systems,” said Cain.

They can also be integrated into public transit, added Allanté Whitmore, director of the AV initiative at SAFE. Local or state governments could also explore opportunities to incentivize shared rides in AVs, she added.

The future of transportation should take the form of systems focusing on more walking, biking and public transit, if cities are to truly become more sustainable and make meaningful attempts at controlling the effects of climate change, said Freemark.

This may be easier said than done in the United States, which has not shown a strong willingness to give up the personal automobile, he added. Which is why AVs — operating within the correct regulatory framework — could be a transportation solution, he added.

“Part of the reason we’re interested in AVs — or autonomous vehicles — is that unfortunately, there are so many problems with the transportation system in the United States today. The vast majority of Americans are car dependent. They rely on driving to perform almost every task in their day-to-day lives,” said Freemark.

“We therefore need to be asking whether there are opportunities for new technologies to alter this situation,” he added. “Is there anything we can do to resolve so many of the problems related to car dependency in a way that improves transportation safety, reduces transportation costs, minimizes use of single occupancy cars and eliminates emissions from transportation?”
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.