Driverless cars, also known as autonomous vehicles (or AVs), aren't science fiction. While many questions remain about safety, infrastructure, federal oversight, and the practical applications of the technology itself, experts agree that local governments should begin planning now.
Like the “horseless carriage” that overwhelmed and totally changed the world forever in the 20th Century, driverless cars are expected by some to do the same in the not-too-distant future.
“Technology always seems far off, but it creeps in quicker than you think,” said Adam Ducker, managing director of RCLCO, a Bethesda, Md., real estate consulting and management company, who spoke on the topic at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in St. Louis.
Ducker is an outspoken advocate for AV technology, a passion he shares with his colleague, Atty. Greg Rodriguez with the Washington, D.C. law firm Best Best & Kreiger LLP. His practice includes providing information, strategic guidance and legal assistance on the regulation and implementation of smart transportation technologies into the transportation network of local governments, including ridesharing and AVs.
“We do a lot of work with municipalities and public works, especially larger transportation projects,” Rodriquez said. “I’d say one of our major tasks is to figure out how we plan for new technology, how we put a framework in place for it and how we avoid problems in the future because of it.”
2016 was a big year for AVs:
• During the final days of the Obama administration, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx introduced the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy with suggested guidelines. Foxx solicited proposals and established 10 proving ground pilot sites to encourage testing and information sharing around AV technologies. He also issued a rule advancing the deployment of connected vehicle technologies (V2V) throughout the U.S. light vehicle fleet, and announced new Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) guidance.
• Uber launched a pilot AV taxi program in Pittsburgh, working with Carnegie-Mellon University, known for its robotics research and curriculum.
• Ford Motors announced its intent to have a high-volume, fully autonomous SAE level 4-capable AV in commercial operation in 2021 for ride-hailing or ride sharing. Ford’s high-tech partners include Velodyne, SAIPS, Neurenberg Neuroscience LLC and Civil Maps.
• Argo AI, a start-up founded by former Google and Uber executives, was launched. (Ford announced in February it will invest $1 billion in Argo AI over the next five years.)
• General Motors announced it would begin self-testing self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric AVs on public roads in Michigan as a follow-up to its testing more than 40 AVs in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz. GM said in January thousands of Bolts will be deployed in test fleets in partnership with Lyft.
While it’s uncertain how much of a priority AVs will have in President Donald Trump’s administration, new Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said she wants testing and experimentation to continue without much federal intervention and without dampening “the basic creativity and innovation of our country.”
Seeking government direction are automakers and private companies such as Uber, Lyft and Google, who went to the U.S. Congress in early February, reported USA Today, “seeking relief from a growing patchwork of state laws surrounding self-driving cars,” and urging lawmakers to use their constitutional authority to also preempt city and county regulations.
Thus far, five states — California, Nevada, Tennessee, Florida and Michigan — and the District of Columbia have passed laws dealing with AVs. Pennsylvania developed a set of guidelines in response to Uber’s Pittsburgh venture.
Ducker and Rodriguez agree that the critical issue with AV technology is to prevent a reoccurrence of things like the 1970s battle between the VHS and Betamax video formats, a battle to the death in the marketplace that Betamax lost.
“Needless to say,” wrote Rodriguez in a November column in Eno Transportation Weekly, “the Department of Transportation through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has had a busy few months with the release of the highly anticipated Federal Automated Vehicles Policy and Cybersecurity Best Practices for Modern Vehicles.
“With the release of the policy…DOT has moved the regulatory gears from ‘neutral’ to ‘drive’ for automated vehicles,” Rodriguez noted.
“While the regulatory path for AVs has started to take shape, it is going to take a collaborative and creative effort between the federal government, states and industry to address the infrastructure funding gap looming on the horizon. This difficult conversation should not be put off any longer if we want to ensure that the transformative benefits of AVs are fully realized.”
Ducker said the technology matters for his clients who own and invest in real estate. “Transportation radically changes land use. For example, trains demanded new places to live, new housing and more. The automobile was a game changer. Suddenly we needed parking. The car was so impactful on changing land use.”
Moving from driver to driverless is another big change. “The way we are building now has to change. The value of buildings will change,” said Ducker.
Ducker explained how the neighborhoods of the 1820s looked radically different from those of the 1920s. The shopping centers of the 1920s in city business districts were dead by the 1960s, replaced by shopping malls, many of which are now being abandoned.
“There’s no question that cities will have to do a better job of planning for and embracing this change to AV than they did with the malls. Today, cities have to be relevant to work.”
Rodriguez echoed, “We strongly recommend that cities start planning now as far as what is going to be needed to handle driverless cars. Everyone is excited, but AVs have to be safe. And while I see the bigger impact three or five years away, things are happening now.”
What should cities and municipalities be planning for?
Rodriguez suggested examining codes, for example, to see if anything prevents AVs from operating. It’s important to have a framework in place to allow them. Cities need to preserve local control over their right-of-ways. “This is important,” said Rodriguez. “You do not want to lose control of how AVs will operate in your municipality. Safety is a vital part of this too.”
Driverless vehicles are part of the ongoing integration of technology to turn communities into “smart cities.” This also encompasses broadband and wireless build outs, going from 4G to 5G, increased connectivity, smart electric and water meters and more, the experts said.
“Ask questions. How will our police regulate AVs? What about unmanned aircraft? Will we need a new network of sensors and antennas along our roads? What about privacy and cybersecurity? What does the future of jobs look like in the cities?” Rodriguez suggested.
He added that his firm is watching AV very closely. “We don’t want any blanket preemption allowing the federal government to control everything. This would be the wrong approach, a one-size-fits-all that can’t be effective. A fleet model for AVs operating on the East Coast in cities like New York and Washington, may not work for less urbanized cities on the West Coast.” To maximize the technology, it needs to be site-specific, he said.
Ducker said he sees two key changes coming with AV.
“First, car sharing will spike like crazy when you take the driver out of the equation. For example, 60 percent of the Uber cost is the driver. Several people could share an Uber ride during morning and evening commutes to the train station. That means tremendous value creation in towns with mass transit. People can move further out and buy less expensive real estate,” explained Ducker.
According to a July 2016 study cited by Ducker and done by Martin & Shaheen, “Impact of Car2Go,” conducted in five North American cities, up to 11 vehicles could be removed per car sharing vehicle, which could have a major positive impact on reducing traffic congestion.
Parking is the second big change.
“Parking is and has been a big problem for America. It is dominant in designing real estate. Where do you stash the cars? Wherever people go, they are going by car. The space where someone works is usually less than the space required to park their car at the office,” Ducker said.
It is also costly and burdensome, he added. “Buildings are complicated and parking particularly affects urban real estate. We are working on a project in downtown Philadelphia where it will cost from $50,000 to $80,000 per space. It is not only the cost; parking garages are incredibly inefficient uses of land,” said Ducker.
Ducker projected that a driverless car could take someone to work and return home, or it could park itself in large, dedicated parking buildings further from downtown offices, similar to a concept now being used in a German city.
There is also an element of social equity that comes with reducing the overall costs of parking. “While the affluent can afford the rates, especially in big cities like New York, we need to make it easier for regular people to live, work and get around in America,” observed Ducker.
Both Rodriguez and Ducker want to see AV technology improve mass transit. Ducker said a car serves four to six people, a bus up to 50 and a train about 300. “Personal cars are used only about four percent of the time. A taxi is actually used 100 percent because it is always available for hire.”
“It should not be just to improve things for single occupancy rides,” said Rodriguez. He noted that DOT has recently announced large amounts of funding for transitional transit projects, including $1 billion for the Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project in San Diego, $1.6 billion for the Westside Purple Line Extension in Los Angeles, $1 billion for the Red and Purple Modernization Project in Chicago and $499 million for TEX Rail in Forth Worth.
According to Rodriguez, there is a simultaneous challenge and opportunity of incorporating smart transportation technologies, including ridesharing and automated and connected vehicles into cities in a way that complements the existing transportation system.
When it comes to mass transit, Ducker said buses are not a great system today. “They are unpredictable, subject to traffic and costly to run. Buses are likely to go autonomous sooner. The driver is eliminated, a major cost. You can have dedicated bus lanes where lights turn green every time the bus approaches. This could really open things up for the suburbs.”
Ducker envisions a hop-on, hop-off constant loop single user, 10-passenger AV vehicle or pod that could operate 24/7 with simple swipe-of-the-smartphone entry. “No cards. No cash. No hassle. Just seamless,” he added.
Rodriguez pointed out that DOT’s 10 proving grounds, trials by Uber and Lyft and ongoing research and development by traditional automakers and newer companies such as Tesla, are important opportunities to test the operations of AVs in different real-world operating environments and establish best practices — “an important step toward developing the critical and missing framework for the safe operation of AVs on our roads.”
Many issues need to be addressed, said Rodriguez, including private and public grants, funding and partnerships; privacy; data and information sharing; infrastructure improvements; safety; the “not in my backyard” mindset; regulatory solutions; public outreach and education; and franchise agreements. i.e., for telecommunications networks.
“This is an exciting opportunity to better our lives if we do it right,” stressed Rodriguez.
That hopefully includes having the federal government fully on board as quickly as possible.
Rodriguez noted that the Obama administration had been “very inspirational and wanted to see the potential developed for what transportation can offer for connectivity. How do we incorporate technologies in a way that enhances our productivity and our use of public transportation? How do we keep things balanced between innovation and regulation with respect to safety?”
He said he expects the same from the new administration.