3 Reasons Local Government Should Prepare for Autonomous Vehicles Now

The full deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs) may still be decades away, but local government may feel the impacts of AVs long before mass deployment. As this technology advances, city officials should consider how they can prepare their agencies and citizens.

The development of AVs continues to accelerate, with most major automakers planning to roll out vehicles with at least partial automation by 2021. As with any disruptive technological advancement, there will be a transition period. Still, the impacts of AVs could be significant as early as 2025.

Once fully integrated on public roads, AVs are expected to improve mobility, reduce congestion and ultimately make driving safer by eliminating human error.

But while the potential benefits are numerous, there are still major obstacles to full-scale AV deployment. The real-world safety of the technology remains unproven, there is currently no incentive or mechanism for the competing companies developing these technologies to share their best practices and lessons learned, and no regulatory oversight or governing legislation has been developed.

The USDOT outlines the role of local government in AV policy making to include their standard responsibilities, such as regulation of local land use – via zoning and permitting – ownership and operation of local roadway, sidewalk and parking infrastructure and enactment and enforcement of local traffic laws.

One of the major challenges facing local governments, however, will be how to promote a regulatory foundation that ensures safety while promoting AV deployment through testing.

Here are three reasons why local governments should prepare for the future of transportation now:

  1. Legislators are already making decisions. AVs are already on public roads, which means legislators are already making key policy decisions. Cities should lobby their state governments and voice their concerns about the safe operation of AVs in their communities. Many of the state legislators championing AVs have direct contacts within the industry, including ties to auto manufactures, tier-one suppliers and academia. City officials should establish these relationships and position themselves as willing participants in the decision-making process. 
  2. Companies will be approaching cities to demo their technologies. State agencies govern the closed, private tracks and highways where most AV pilot projects currently occur. Eventually, AV technologies will need to be tested in the more complex environments cities offer. Companies will be approaching both large, metropolitan cities and rural communities to validate their AV technology in diverse environments. Ride sharing will continue to advance, directly impacting localities most. Technology firms will approach transit agencies seeking to test out their AV solutions. Infrastructure upgrades will be needed to support connected technology and Smart Cities. Localities will have to collaborate with the private sector to determine how these upgrades will be funded.
  3. Public acceptance will fall on local governments. Recent polls show Americans are highly skeptical of AVs. As of March 2019, 71 percent of people are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles. Despite differing opinions, citizens will expect their governments to take the lead and address their concerns around safety and transportation. To develop the regulatory framework of AVs on their streets, city officials should first research AVs, seek out industry experts then engage with citizens. Engagement ideas include public AV demonstrations, educational forums, and consideration of automation in public planning and visioning meetings.

Technology maturity and regulatory consistency are two major obstacles facing the deployment of fully self-driving vehicles. The biggest challenge? Public acceptance.

Autonomous vehicles will soon hit public roads in greater numbers, whether local governments are ready for them or not. The time to prepare is now.

Kelda Senior is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a business development and accredited public relations professional from Florida. For the past 10 years, Kelda has served as a communications and community outreach specialist in local, state and federal government, with an emphasis on the transportation sector since 2012. Kelda is the owner of Senior Communications LLC, a boutique public relations firm focused on helping emerging brands cultivate their message and move their audiences to action. Kelda holds a B.A. in journalism and a master of public administration – both from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. You can read her posts here.

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