This March’s fatal accident involving an Uber-operated autonomous vehicle (AV) has slowed—but not stopped—the adoption of the self-driving cars in the U.S., according to panelists at a planning conference in Washington, D.C., this week.
Following the Tempe, Ariz., incident, Uber immediately grounded all of its AV vehicles in two testing locations, Arizona and Pittsburgh, according to Malcom Glen, head of global policy for accessibility and underserved communities at Uber Technologies. Calling the incident “a real reckoning for the industry,” Glen told the audience at the American Planning Association’s Policy and Advocacy Conference that “while this is likely to not be the only incident we will encounter in this space, it’s a matter of making sure we can mitigate similar incidents going forward.”
Autonomous-equipped vehicles operating in Pittsburgh are now up and running again but not in an autonomous mode. Glen believes that ride sharing will be the vehicle the public initially uses for engaging with AVs due to the prohibitive expense of the technology. He also talked about Uber’s commitment to disrupt the car industry as it is also is moving into platforms for sharing electric bicycles, scooters and eventually flying cars. “Our investment in AVs, while it is on pause and is going to stay paused until we feel extremely confident in our ability to get back on the road in a safe way, hasn’t wavered,” he said.
Other experts offered perspectives on the current state of the adoption of AVs, which are of interest to many residential development firms that are considering including them in current and future neighborhoods. Driverless shuttles have recently been introduced at Babcock Ranch, a planned community in near Fort Myers, Fla.
Finch Fulton, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation discussed the agency’s effort of updating the federal government’s role on autonomous policy with a special focus on vehicle safety.
“The previous administration put out a pretty expansive guidance document. We got feedback from a lot of our stakeholders and we will streamline that and make it clear,” he said, adding that the agency does not have a firm publishing date for the update.
Fulton talked about DOT setting forth guidelines about what state and local governments will be responsible for regarding the regulation of AVs, as well as private industry. DOT will also be issuing $60 million in “demonstration grants,” for advancing innovation in autonomous vehicles.
Greg Rogers, the director of government affairs and mobility innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) based in Washington D.C., laid out his organization’s research that shows that AVs will be “overwhelmingly electric.” According to SAFE, the AVs currently registered in California are 60% electric powered or hybrids. SAFE believes the traditional regulatory roles played by governmental entities will remain intact with the federal level focusing on safety while state and local will handle insurance, vehicle registration, and enforcing traffic laws.
He also noted a regulatory gap in that there are currently “no federal standards around autonomous vehicles which has prompted a lot of states, now over 30 of them, to pass legislation to regulate autonomous vehicles. Some cities have looked at doing it themselves, so there’s a lot of confusion about everybody’s specific role.” He also talked about two bills currently in Congress that are attempting to clarify regulatory issues.
Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Washington, D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation, closed out the panel by addressing planners’ concerns about safety and acknowledged the role of the federal government to take the lead with establishing safety regulations. “I think its incumbent on us to make sure the federal government is doing its responsibility to make sure the regulations that come out have teeth and really push safety to the forefront,” he said.
Lewis reiterated that local governments are responsible for the infrastructure needed to make AVs more viable including street and roadway design. He charged planners to reconsider land use policy and variables like parking and dedicated bus lanes as well. “The locals and the states also have a huge role in safety particularly around the design of the street, the roadways, traffic rules and how they enforce those. That doesn’t change under automated vehicles,” he said.