(TNS) –– Classic images of futuristic, automated cars often show a glass-domed vehicle carrying a nuclear family of four as they cruise down an interstate, paying no attention to where they're going. While that's not what autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, will look like, their existence is only years, not decades, away.

ACMi volunteer and MBTA Rider Oversight Committee member Lenard Diggins was a driving force behind the Autonomous Vehicle Forum held in the Town Hall on Nov. 14. With the help of Board of Selectmen chair Joseph Curro and the planning department, three panelists from Arlington and the Boston area discussed how self-driving cars will impact towns like Arlington.

"Technology has really had an impact on us as a board and we've had to be reactive [so far]," said Curro.

He noted that the board had seen an increase in technology that impacts traffic and parking. Apps like Waze create problems for once quiet neighborhoods and electronic parking meters allow for greater versatility throughout the town. Curro added that as a community they have to be ready for these advancing technologies, including autonomous vehicles.

What is an autonomous vehicle?

Scott Smith, an Arlington resident and Senior Operations Research Analyst at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, spoke to the technology behind self-driving cars.

Smith noted there are six levels of automation in self-driving cars.

  • Level 0: No automation. The driver performs all the driving tasks.
  • Level 1: Driver assistance. The car is controlled by the driver but some assistance features may be included like lane departure warnings.
  • Level 2: Partial automation. The car has some automated functions, like cars that can parallel park themselves, but the driver must engage the task and monitor their surroundings.
  • Level 3: Conditional automation. The driver is not required to monitor their surroundings but must be ready to take control of the car back at all times.
  • Level 4: High automation. The car is capable of performing all the driving functions under certain conditions and the driver has the option to control the vehicle.
  • Level 5: Full automation. The car is capable of performing all driving functions and the driver has the option to control the vehicle.

Most automated driving systems fall in the Level 3-5 category, but Smith added Level 5 cars don't exist yet.

The cars use a combination of sensors, data, automated imaging processing and artificial intelligence to monitor their surroundings and make the appropriate decision based off of what those sensors see.

What are their impacts on people?

A wave of self-driving cars won't suddenly hit the streets of Arlington. Smith noted that turnover to only self-driving cars on the road may take 20 to 30 years. Roughly 20 percent of the 2017 car models may still be on the road then.

This means that new self-driving cars will have to coexist with traditional cars for quite some time. Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation added that a bill about regulating autonomous vehicles has been introduced to the state legislature.

Major elements of the bill include rules on how human and robotic drivers will share the road and regulations to reduce the number of "zombie vehicles"--self-driving cars without any people inside--and clearly marking these self-driving cars.

Mares, who helped create a report analyzing the potential fiscal and economic impacts of self-driving cars, added that professional drivers will end up losing their jobs. Eric Bourassa, an Arlington resident and Transportation Director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), added that there's a big role for the government to play in providing workforce training for these drivers that would lose their jobs.

What are their impacts on the economy?

Mares outlined other ways self-driving cars will impact local economies. Currently, municipalities like Arlington generate revenue through excise taxes, parking tickets and fines and parking.

Whether self-driving cars are electric or gas-powered will have varying impacts on the economy, Mares said. If the cars are gas-powered, the fuel tax will generate more revenue. If they are electric, the tax will decrease and disappear altogether.

He noted that with self-driving cars, the need for parking spaces will decrease. People will be able to send their cars home after they are dropped off or into a more efficient parking lot. With no people to get out of the cars once they're parked, more cars can fit in the same space.

"As space is freed up from parking, it can be used in different ways," he said.

What are their impacts on land use?

Bourassa's work with the MAPC largely involves helping cities and towns plan for their future.

"We know that nothing influences the way that we grow more than the impact of transportation," he said.

With a decrease in the need for parking, Bourassa noted that space can be converted into other uses. There are currently about 1,600 public and private parking spaces in Arlington Center and Bourassa imagines some turning into dedicated bike and bus lanes or separate lanes for self-driving cars. Cities and towns could widen sidewalks into what used to be on-street parking.

To determine the impact autonomous vehicles will have, municipalities will need to look at data surrounding the desire for self-driving cars. Then, they can make informed decisions related to planning the transportation future of the town.

©2017 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.