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How Cities Should Be Preparing for the Onset of Autonomous Vehicles

A report published by the National League of Cities breaks down the issues cities should be thinking about in anticipation of self-driving vehicles.

Last year, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its autonomous vehicle guidelines, the document helped lay out a strategy for how the government will adopt self-driving vehicles. NHTSA suggested that the vehicle itself should be certified safe as a part of its federal motor vehicle safety standards and that states should remain responsible for the licensing and registration of the vehicle.

What remained ambiguous, according to the National League of Cities (NLC) however, was the official role cities were to play in this transportation revolution.

The guidelines are written in a very “state-centric” way, explained one of the report’s authors, Nicole DuPuis, senior associate with NLC. The federal guidelines, which number more than 100 pages, are “not super accessible for cities.”

In response to the overwhelming number of questions the NLC has received from cities about how to anticipate the onset of AVs, the organization released its report breaking down some of the most immediate considerations cities should make. The report, Autonomous Vehicles: A Policy Preparation Guide, released April 19, “cultivates the conversation, questions or issues that cities should be thinking about as they prepare for this new technology,” said DuPuis.

One thing cities need to do is understand the assumptions and their basis in reality regarding the onset of AVs. The conversation is dominated by personal vehicles becoming automated, explained DuPuis. This is partly driven “because the conversation is dominated by legacy auto manufacturers and some of the new players who have a vested interest in selling cars.” While personal ownership is the most common model for traditional vehicles, this may change as autonomous fleets gain more traction.

AV fleets seem to help offset some of the exorbitant costs and concerns about maintenance and whether or not original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts are used for repairs. Even if AVs operated as a ride-hailing service, not everyone wants to give up driving, DuPuis said.

“We’re really not talking a lot about what this means for cities or transit agencies and how these things [autonomous vehicles] can be complementary,” said DuPuis. “The discussion is very narrow right now.”

One of the most important steps that cities can take is to make sure they have a seat at the table. With the industry moving rapidly toward the new technology, it is vital for cities to make their voices heard. Whether joining a coalition of cities, states and stakeholders, or entering partnerships with AV manufacturers, cities should focus on being a part of the conversation.

On top of being at the table, cities need to make sure, that they have the right people from the city, said DuPuis. Representatives from procurement, IT and the city transportation department all provide specific viewpoints for how AV technology should be integrated.

When making partnerships with specific companies, cities must remain vigilant. “Cities have to be very intentional, and very overt in keeping their needs and goals front and center in discussion with private-sector organizations,” explained DuPuis.

The most important step cities can take today, according to the report, is planning for the influx of AVs, or at least even talking about it. Several companies have expressed interests in creating marketable AVs by as early as 2021. Three years is not a lot of time to figure things out in terms of infrastructure, data storage capabilities and crafting city ordinances.

“Cities should really start planning yesterday,” DuPuis said.

Cities should begin planning for this and holding public workshops with constituents now, to prepare for what is certain to be a complex policy process.

Each city is unique, and deployment will look different in every community, said DuPuis. “Cities should feel empowered to figure out how they want it to look in their community,” she said. She rejects the trope that city-specific regulations will create a patchwork of laws that stifle industry. “Cities really will be ground zero for this,” and have every right to figure out what's best for them.

The NHTSA AV guidelines are available here.

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.