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Why the Push for Autonomous Vehicles Should Slow Down

States and municipalities barely able to fill potholes today could soon be charged with creating the world’s most sophisticated roads with embedded sensors, cameras and communication devices to help autonomous vehicles talk to one another and the environment around them.

(TNS) -- In the push to put autonomous vehicles on the nation's roads, the most challenging aspect might be with the roads themselves, and the bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure.

Cities and states have done little to grapple with the enormous demands that autonomous vehicles will place on transportation infrastructure and on civic policy. States and municipalities barely able to fill potholes today could soon be charged with creating the world’s most sophisticated roads with embedded sensors, cameras and communication devices to help autonomous vehicles talk to one another and the environment around them.

“The vehicle development is way ahead of the public policy,” warns Jonathan Levine, a professor of urban planning and a transportation expert at the University of Michigan. Asked whether cities were doing enough to get ready, he said, “My short answer is no, we’re not doing what we need to be doing yet.”

A year-old report from the National League of Cities found that only 6% of U.S. cities had devoted planning resources to figuring out changes needed to accommodate self-driving vehicles. And only 3% had studied the impact of on-demand transport services like Uber and Lyft, which function as alternatives to traditional taxi services.

Looming beyond that immediate infrastructure issue for self-driving trucks, buses, cars, delivery vans and the like are even larger policy questions: How can cities ensure that their poorer residents who lack transit options today will not be left further behind in an increasingly driverless world? How can cities tilt their transit policies toward greener “smart growth” and away from environmentally wasteful suburban sprawl?

“We’re beginning to think about it,” said Carmine Palombo, deputy executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the regional planning agency that helps steer transportation investment dollars. “What does it really mean? Will local units have to ante up for their share of the communications component of this thing? What’s the impact of the bad street system that we have? What about maintenance? What happens in the snow? (If) something does happen on city streets, who’s going to be held liable?”

Proponents of self-driving vehicles generally predict an upbeat future, with significantly reduced accidents and deaths as computers take over from distracted drivers, leading to reduced insurance and medical costs and other benefits for society. Optimists also predict greater fuel savings from a steadier flow of traffic, reducing or eliminating traffic snarls.

But some voices have been raising cautionary notes.

"There'll definitely be a spectrum in terms of the way cities respond to this," said Nicole DuPuis, a transportation planning expert with the National League of Cities. "One of the issues that we tried to tap into is how cities are going to be be thinking about land use in a world where there's autonomous vehicles."

For example, she asks: How should cities invest in parking garages in the future? Or: How can cities replace revenue from traffic and parking fines that might logically dry up in an autonomous vehicle urban landscape.

Cost is a big issue for municipalities. Michigan, like many states, already has been debating how to pay to fix its crumbling roads and bridges. State lawmakers agreed in 2015 to spend more on road repairs in years ahead, but there is nothing in the plan that addresses requirements for autonomous vehicles. Lawmakers approved another package last year to make it easier to test driverless cars in Michigan.

Billions of dollars will be required to refit the nation’s millions of miles of roads with new sensors, signaling devices, and other technology. Nobody knows, yet, who will pay for that.

Basic questions remain about which technologies will be fitted into roads and vehicles. Even something as simple as painting crisp, clear white lines on city streets may become an issue. Faded lines that adequately signal to human drivers to stay in their lane may be inadequate to signal to a driverless car.

But U-M's Levine warns that the public policy questions inherent in a driverless world are even tougher to solve. He cites research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that suggests the potential energy use by driverless cars could range anywhere from a 90% reduction in current energy use to a 200% increase. Because energy use is a good proxy for environmental impact, Levine said, "the self-driving car could be an absolute environmental boon, even a savior, or it could be an absolute disaster."

The difference lies in how consumers use self-driving cars. If the public buys self-driving cars much as they buy vehicles today — a car in every garage — self-driving technology could greatly increase the amount of miles driven. Say a commuter takes a self-driving car to work downtown, and then rather than pay for parking, sends it back empty to park at home. At the end of the day, the empty car returns downtown to pick up the owner. Total usage: two round trips per day instead of the usual one.

“We’d be driving more and more, but we wouldn’t be reaching more destinations," Levine said. "In fact, we probably couldn’t handle the congestion.”

On the possible upside, sharing driverless vehicles through on-demand services like Uber or Lyft might mean fewer private cars and a savings in energy. But Levine fears that policies will tilt toward private ownership. He suggests zoning laws be significantly overhauled to reduce the amount of parking required and to encourage more walkable, mixed-use environments where privately owned cars are less needed.

“When it comes to how the self-driving car fits into our cities and into our metro areas, I think we haven’t begun to scratch the surface," he said. "And the danger is we’re defaulting toward that scenario where the self-driving car vastly multiplies vehicle miles traveled."

©2017 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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