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Newness of AV Tech Insists Upon Public, Private Collaboration

The 10th annual Transportation Research Board Automated Road Transportation Symposium explored the myriad policy questions and debates surrounding connected and autonomous vehicle technology.

connected vehicles on a road
Advancing autonomous vehicle technologies is bringing together government and the private sector in collaborations both say are not always familiar, but are very necessary.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of collaboration within industry, between industry and government to kind of share these lessons learned and best practices so that everybody can evolve and learn, and bring this technology to market,” said Michael Shapiro, deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Shapiro was part of a panel discussion during the 10th annual Transportation Research Board Automated Road Transportation Symposium. The event looks at the many policy questions and debates surrounding connected and autonomous vehicles.

A challenge, say public officials charged with drafting the regulatory framework for testing and deploying AVs, is the newness of the technology and general unfamiliarity.

“It’s really tough from a regulatory standpoint to think about how we’re going to manage something that we’re not seeing on our roadways today, in a high volume,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, in comments at the symposium.

It’s why close collaboration and communication between the private sector and regulators needs to be maintained, said Shapiro, a former official with Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, which spun out of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

“In the private sector we’re kind of very concerned with, ‘what is the technology road map for this system? Is it viable? What are the use cases?’ We also ask a lot of questions about the business model. ‘What’s the unit economics?’” said Shapiro, adding these are the kinds of variables public-sector regulators need a sense of as well.

“It’s incumbent on the government to have a really thoughtful understanding, and working with industry to really understand, how their business models work, how their technology works, and use that to inform regulation,” he added.

Those kinds of conversations are happening at the state and local level as well — or at least they should be. In San Francisco, where a number of companies are testing AV technologies — both with human operators and, in some cases, without — local transportation officials have little oversight over the testing projects, which are largely overseen by the state, said Katie Angotti , autonomous vehicle policy manager for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

“We don’t have a lot of insight into industry operations on city streets. None of the testing that’s occurring is really happening in partnership with the city, or in coordination,” said Angotti, adding that the city is not able to draw conclusions around how AVs might impact greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, transit, equity and other areas.

“Because we’re not testing in collaboration. So that is what we want to see more of,” she added. “We need active collaboration between AV companies and the city to test and determine how the operations and the business models can support city goals.”

In Arizona, where the regulatory path has been historically smoother, AV developers have flocked to the state.

“I’ve never seen an issue where every level of government is kind of pulling in the same direction,” said Kevin Biesty, deputy director for policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation.

“The coordination that we have with our cities, towns and counties, from the first responders to the elected officials, has been phenomenal,” he added.

Invariably, local and state transportation departments will enable and regulate AVs against their own larger goals and missions like reducing traffic, expanding equity or improving highway safety. And AV developers and operators will tend to gravitate toward cities and states where the regulatory landscape has fewer hurdles and is more predicable, said AV officials.

“The simpler the framework is, the less steps that a company needs to take to actually have their vehicles on the road,” said Aidan Ali-Sullivan, who manages state policy and government affairs in the western U.S. for Waymo. “It’s really just the ease of implementation of the technology from a regulatory standpoint.”
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.