Last updated on 04/06/2017

How will the government respond to autonomous vehicles?

There are a few conflict areas that might arise between the private and public sector.
Uber car
Published by Victor Cassone

You don’t have to be a fortune teller to see that autonomous vehicles are right around the corner. Their impact will be huge. The changes they will bring to our cities will be drastic. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

There is a lot that needs to be done between now and then. The technology still needs to develop and our government agencies need to figure out how they are going to respond to the changes they will bring.

Right now, the most advanced autonomous vehicles only allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel on the highways, merge lanes and brake when necessary. Companies like Tesla claim all their current semi-autonomous vehicles have all the hardware necessary be fully autonomous. The software is the only thing holding them back.

The current projections are that by 2020 semi autonomous vehicles will start navigating city roads that don’t have many pedestrians. By 2030, experts are projecting a steep drop in personal car ownership. Self driving fleets will be common and driving your own car will be a luxury or a hobby.

These projections show that these autonomous capabilities are coming relatively soon. To put this timeline into context, Facebook was launched 13 years ago. In that same amount of time in the future, most cars will be driving themselves.

Since these changes will have the biggest impact on cities, a big question in the coming years will be what role will city governments play in the evolution of autonomous vehicles. As of right now, city planners are not fully considering a future of autonomous vehicles. According to research by Erick Guerra, a Professor in City and Regional Planning at University of Pennsylvania, just one of the country’s 25 largest metropolitan planning organizations even mentions driverless vehicles in their 25 year plans.

City governments will eventually have to plan and react to autonomous vehicles. Philosophically, we will need to consider the role of the government in regulating and providing access to autonomous vehicles. There are many conflicts that will arise when figuring out the balance between the public and private sector in the impending autonomous revolution.

A central question that will eventually need to be answered is what autonomous services will be provide to the public? Will cities provide autonomous vehicles as a service like a city bus or will it remain 100% private and operate like a Lyft or Uber?

All current indications point to autonomous vehicles remaining controlled by the private industry. However, it’s easy to see where there might be conflicts in the future.

If current trends continue, people will have two choices. They can choose to buy their own autonomous vehicle or they will rely on autonomous ridesharing like Lyft or Uber. John Zimmer, the co-founder of Lyft, believes eventually you will pay a flat monthly fee and you will have access to all the rides you need.

Keeping it in the private sector will allow the free market to work its magic. The competition among companies will help keep the price point low and the service high. However, there are a few concerns the city might have as time goes on.

Cities have always been concerned about making transportation as accessible as possible to everyone. Autonomous vehicles will be a extremely efficient way of traveling your city. It will be a huge advantage to have access to such a service. The city will be heavily interested in whether these services can be provided equally to all the citizens. Making sure there is equal access will be a potential point of conflict between private and public sector.

If only a subset of people can afford using autonomous vehicles and these people are at an advantage because they have access to this transportation then it’s reasonable to assume a city will invest in opening up access to the people who can’t afford it. There is a few ways they could go about doing this.

One way they could accomplish this is by subsidizing poorer communities to help them afford transportation costs and/or subsidizing car companies so they can provide a lower price point. This would keep the majority of the control in the private sector and allow for more people to have access these autonomous vehicles. What happens if the price point is still too high?

Another likely scenario would be for city governments to provide their own autonomous vehicle fleets. These fleets would have a similar philosophy of city buses. The city would eat most of the operation costs but still require some sort of payment for usage. This would help bring down the cost and eliminate some of the barriers of access.

Providing a public fleet would put the city in direct competition with the autonomous vehicle industry. On an issue as important as transportation, it’s hard to imagine a city backing down from a fight with the private sector. There is a chance they could work well together in unison. This doesn’t seem likely.

People living in cities are generally more liberal. Liberals tend to favor more public transportation options. Thus, it would reasonable to assume a publicly provided fleet will grow and continually chip away at autonomous vehicle market share.

The next potential conflict between the private and public sectors will revolve around who is in charge of making sure the autonomous vehicles are safe to use.

In the early days of autonomous vehicles, there will be a mix between driverless and manually driven cars. A mixed roadway will challenge some of our most basic driving habits. We are used to how humans respond on the road but we are not used to how a computer will respond in the same situations. Pedestrians will start being taking less caution when crossing the street because of a overconfidence in autonomous vehicles. All of these things will result in an adjustment period which might result in more accidents.

To prevent such accidents, new laws and regulations will need to be enforced for drivers and vehicles alike. Making laws for humans is easy. The problem is how do you create a law for a piece of software that makes decisions on its own? Laws are designed to control human behavior. However, humans won’t be controlling these autonomous vehicles, their software will be in control. The government would need to find ways to put these vehicles through behavioral tests or they might require certain unit tests for the software directly.

What does this mean for the companies who develops the software? Will the government have the final say on the software that is allowed on the road? If the government has the final say then who really is in control of the software? This point is important because whoever controls the software controls the cars.

These software regulations will be a way for governments to flex their muscles. Cities will be able to use this as a point of leverage against the autonomous vehicle industry. This will almost certainly cause conflict between the private and public sector in the coming years.

Once mass adoption is achieved, another major impact of autonomous vehicles will be their effect on the look and feel of a city. Roads will be smaller due to less traffic. People will start living further away from the city since they will be able to work in their cars. There will be a massive reduction in parking spaces throughout the city.

A 2011 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that the United States has somewhere close to a billion parking spots. Since there are around 250 million cars and trucks, that means we have 4 times as many parking spots as we do vehicles. On top of that, autonomous vehicles will cause a massive decrease in car ownership. Instead of owning a car, people will just call an autonomous vehicle when they need a ride. This will result in many empty parking spaces. These spaces will need to be transformed into something more useful.

Cities will start pushing for a reconstruction of the city’s landscape to fully utilize the extra space provided by autonomous vehicles. Parks and urban centers will start taking the place of parking garages. The look and feel of a city will change rapidly.

All of this change will be exclusive caused by one technology. The structure of the city will be dependent on this technology to work properly. What happens, for whatever reason, if the autonomous vehicles in a city fails?

There will come a point where the autonomous vehicle industry will be too big to fail. Our daily life will be too dependent on these cars. When this time comes, will the private or public sector be responsible for making sure everything is working?

Being completely dependent on private companies seems a bit risky. There are too many scenarios where a company can go out of business. If the free market is left alone, once one company goes under another will take its place. However, what if there are only 2 companies providing this service?

This dichotomy will cause the government to want to intervene and either provide aid to the failing company or provide their own service. The government will be making huge investments in reshaping the city. They can’t afford letting the technology they are rebuilding the city for fail, even for a couple of days. They will need some sort of guarantee. This again will question whether the government should be the entity providing that guarantee.

Everything in the article is just speculation. It’s hard to tell at this point what the role of the government will be in providing autonomous vehicles to the public. It seems pretty clear that it won't be straightforward. There will definitely be conflicts between the private and public sectors.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.