Last week as part of his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a $4 billion investment over the next 10 years to test autonomous vehicles and get them ready for the market. Two days later at the Detroit Auto Show, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that federal regulators would begin to develop coherent safety regulations for autonomous vehicles — something industry leaders have been pushing.
Before you dismiss these developments as just another sop to the car industry, consider the huge implications that autonomous vehicles could have for cities. There are upsides — NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind has said that self-driving cars “can eliminate 94 percent of fatal crashes involving human error” — and there are downsides as well. The ease of operating autonomous vehicles could lead to supercharged sprawl, for instance.
The emergence of self-driving cars raises a host of questions about issues ranging from liability in the event of a crash to the potential for shared autonomous vehicle fleets to free up huge amounts of street space.
Right now there’s a patchwork of state laws regulating the self-driving prototypes that companies are testing (and many states have none). Last month, California released the first state rules governing autonomous cars for public use.
I’m not saying this is all good. I’m saying it’s inevitable, so we should be shaping the way it happens.
Federal regulators say they will work with a group of states, car makers, and other interests to establish model legislation for states. Meanwhile, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will develop performance standards for self-driving cars.
So the next six months will be a critical time in shaping how self-driving cars are adopted. What should people who care about city streets look for during this process?
In his book Startup City, former Chicago and D.C. transportation director Gabe Klein touches on the emergence of self-driving cars and the potential consequences for cities. We spoke to Klein (who also serves on the board of OpenPlans, the organization that publishes Streetsblog USA) about why these regulations matter and what to look for as they’re developed.