Regardless of where autonomous vehicles (AVs) first hit the roads en masse—city or highway—they face significant regulatory, consumer sentiment, and other headwinds, according to the panel on AV regulation.
The opportunities for AVs to make a positive impact in cities are tremendous, but not without challenges, according to Sam Kling, whose research on behalf of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs focuses on the future of mobility and cities.
The automobile drove a revolution in cities in terms of how people use public space and the street, Kling said. Regulation and infrastructure changed to handle the explosion in cars while protecting pedestrians, and it will have to change again once the computer is driving. “It raises the question, how are we going rethink the street once autonomous vehicles come about?”
Tackling regulation in a city is one thing; regulating AVs across state lines is another.
“At the end of the day, federal leadership is going be really important on this issue, because we can't have a 50-state patchwork,” said Robyn Boerstling of NAM, which advocates on behalf of the manufacturing industry. “But I am very optimistic, I think that the technology is advancing so quickly and consumers are going to be placing high demands on automakers, the government is going to have to come along.”
Robbie Diamond, who leads two organizations focused on ending oil dependence, is concerned about long-term implications of short-sighted regulation. “The decisions we’re making today are more important from a regulatory perspective than we think,” he said. “The threat… to billions of dollars that are being invested today is real, and profound, and it's being overlooked in many ways by people who run companies who are engineers as opposed to understanding the politics,” he said.
Another primary concern with the rollout of AVs is data security, said Ryan Bowers, who handles privacy and cybersecurity issues at General Motors. This includes data from unmanned delivery, in which the AV “is a moving set of sensors collecting data, collecting videos… What are they going do with that data and how that data's going be leveraged?”
Bowers suggested that customers may not yet understand how or the extent to which their data is being used. Case in point, a number of audience members said they use doorbell cameras but far fewer of those knew that R&D employees in the Ukraine were examining the video feeds.
In fact, surveys show that consumers are more concerned about AV hacking, and many remain uncomfortable with the concept of autonomous driving altogether. At the same time, oil companies, trial lawyers, and others continue to hamper adoption for their own purposes, Diamond said.
“I think that we're in for a political battle,” he said. “It's like a gun fight and the truth is, the advocates for [AV] haven't even brought a knife to the gun fight, they have a spoon.”
In light of Washington, DC’s dysfunction, Boerstling said she’s more bullish on adoption in cities as those governments look for AVs and mobility as a service (MaaS) to help meet the specific challenge of congestion. However, Kling warned that AV rollout must be considered in tandem with improvements to public transit.
“I agree that there is the potential for autonomous vehicles to reduce congestion, but ultimately a car is the size of a car whether it's driven by a computer or driven by a human,” he said. “A city is going to want to prioritize transit because that moves a lot more people a lot more efficiently.”
Diamond countered that public transit is one more party that’s going to fight against AVs, and it could remain more expensive per mile than travel via electric AV while still failing to move consumers all the way from point A to point B.
Kling responded that low AV electric vehicle (EV) mobility per mile really doesn’t cover total cost of deployment, including infrastructure, while congestion, pollution, and other negatives remain.
“Autonomous vehicles can certainly be part of the solution, but transit has to play a very big central role in these dense global cities,” Kling said. “Really they're part of the same system, and you can't have autonomous vehicles working properly without a well-functioning transit system.”
Indeed, while AV MaaS could reach underserved neighborhoods, including lower-income areas now disconnected from employment zones in cities, it represents one of the biggest dangers to public transit if fares are so low they undercut transit, Kling continued. “Ridership would go down, funding would go down, service would go down, and therefore no one would ride transit really. It means just a flood of cars on the road, autonomous or otherwise.”
Diamond expects autonomy will drive the electric car revolution even faster, offering consumers the proposition of convenience, time, and safety. “What's really exciting is electrification and this force multiplier between connected, autonomous, shared, and electric,” he said. Consumer demand for EVs “will drive that revolution to end oil dependence, lower carbon emissions, and everything else. This is capitalism at its best.”
Another second-order impact of a positive nature could help the trucking industry, Boerstling said. If consumers as well as legislators can get over the psychological resistance to large, autonomous delivery vehicles, the industry could eliminate its driver shortage issue, currently in the neighborhood of 50,000 vacancies.
Finally, Bowers suggested that new businesses may arise as AVs open up free time. “You can think of shopping, of gaming, of entertainment, and I think there's going to be an interesting ecosystem that could develop around that time spent in a vehicle.”
Added Diamond, “Great, I think people should invest in driving games because while you're in your car… you'll not actually be driving your car.”