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The 6 Challenges of Autonomous Vehicles and How to Overcome Them

The University of Washington released a report for how Seattle should handle the onset of autonomous vehicles, but lessons can be applied to cities nationwide.

In many ways, the age of the autonomous vehicle (AV) has already begun. Cities nationwide are entering partnerships with companies to allow testing on public roads, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its guidance on AVs and people are buying Teslas that include an autopilot feature. It is not too late, however, for cities not yet part of this wave to prepare themselves for the advent of larger-scale deployment.

Seattle is one such city, and it's been suffering a worsening congestion problem over the last decade. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, the Emerald City ranks fourth in congestion in the United States. But with its concentration of tech companies, AVs could begin to dot Seattle roadways.

In an effort to inform residents and city officials, the the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab and the Mobility Innovation Center released Driverless Seattle (PDF), a report that breaks down some common misconceptions; explains the current regulatory environment; explores how AVs will affect the city in the short, medium and long term; and offers how best to anticipate 6 major challenges.

1. Traffic Management

AV evangelists often refer to the traffic flow efficiency that could be created by self-driving vehicles. Cars that communicate with one another can avoid accidents and travel much more closely together, maximizing space. Much of the current AV conversation, however, has been focused on personal vehicles. There is enormous potential for self-driving trucks in platooning, the concept for big rigs to drive in caravans extremely close to each other, or self-driving shuttles that can help solve first mile/last mile traffic issues.

The problem with these estimates, according to the report, is that if self-driving vehicles become available too quickly, that may lead to more personal vehicles on the road, thus disincentivizing more traffic-efficient public transportation options. AVs could lead to longer commutes, because riders could use their time for reading or perusing social media on a smartphone.

Seattle may be able to reap the benefits of limited AV deployment by requiring traffic data to better inform the city departments on how traffic flow is and where the congestion points are. Currently, Seattle’s Advances Traffic Management System (ATMS) is capable of collecting on-street traffic data, but transmitting AV traffic data to ATMS could optimize traffic patterns through signal manipulation or direct communication.

2. Infrastructure

Because of the radical change that AVs will bring to the current system of transportation, infrastructure pitfalls will become a glaring need. Often, AVs need clear lane striping, places to store the data collected by driving and if they run on electricity a more robust charging network. Without properly anticipating the sometimes opaque challenges, the system could be crippled in its infancy.

The report recommends opening dialog now in order to prioritize public investments in infrastructure. Engaging in community and industry outreach could help officials understand whether it would be necessary to expand existing infrastructure or establish new features for AVs.

3. Revenue

In its ultimate form, AVs will not run red lights, they will not speed down the highway over the limit or overstay metered parking spots. This will, however, impact the city’s budget. In Seattle, traffic fines constitute 2.6 percent of the city’s operating fund. Seattle will have to generate new revenue streams in order to counteract the loss of funding. One suggestion from the report is for the city to develop a mileage tax or an AV registration tax.

4. Liability Insurance

One of the murkiest areas for self-driving vehicles is the issue of liability and insurance. How will insurance companies handle fender benders while a driver was reading and not paying attention to the road? Furthermore, who will constitute as the “driver;” who has ultimate “control”? The answer again lies in community partnerships. The report recommends opportunities for partnering with AV companies to facilitate the smooth introduction to AVs. And while many insurance and liability issues are not under city jurisdiction, Seattle should remain informed of developing liability policies.

5. Police and Emergency Response

More questions arise from AVs when thinking about law enforcement. How will police officers be able to recognize if a tailgating car is actually a series of connected AVs? It is not hard to imagine AVs being used as drug mules to transport narcotics. Local police departments could also become confused if during a routine traffic stop, an AV is pulled over.

In the short term, the report suggests developing specific training procedures for police and emergency services interactions with AVs. In the long run, law enforcement agents may want to work with manufacturers on creating a “kill switch” to disable an AV that could be suspected of transporting illegal cargo. In the medium term, emergency services could coordinate with AVs to automate some police surveillance efforts or ambulance dispatch.

6. Social Justice and Equity

Among the most challenging issues facing the onset of AVs is the danger that it could overly benefit the wealthy and create more burdens for lower income residents. If AVs follow typical ownership models, the technology will be exclusively owned by the upper class, and lower-income community members will inadvertently be forced to bear the brunt of traffic fines. Those without AVs may also be disadvantaged when it comes to employment, as those with AVs would be able to work and answer emails while commuting.

There is no easy solution to this problem. “Seattle should proactively consider both the positive and negative impacts of AV technologies and policy responses on disadvantaged groups at every stage of regulation development and infrastructure funding,” the report reads. Only by actively staying aware of the benefits and drawbacks will Seattle officials be able to distribute the benefits equally.

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.