I’ve had a firehose-drinking few weeks of thinking about how connected and automated driving could affect our communities. “Could” remains the operative word, at least for self-driving cars, since the buzz still outweighs the reality by a significant factor.

"Gartner's Hype Cycle" for 2016 shows autonomous vehicles (yellow arrow) just about at the top of the "peak of inflated expectations."

“Gartner’s Hype Cycle” for 2016 shows autonomous vehicles (yellow arrow) just about at the top of the “peak of inflated expectations.”

Capital Conference 2017

At the League’s Capital Conference, Harry Lightsey from General Motors shared time-lapse video of one of GM’s vehicles navigating the streets of San Francisco, apparently in autonomous mode. (Caution: If you get motion sick easily, maybe skip the video.)  Nicole DuPuis from National League of Cities followed with thoughts from NLC’s Future of the City work.

We followed with a breakout to talk about the hot-off-the-presses report from PSC and CAR to Prosperity Region 9, outlining near-term issues that our communities need to grapple with. These range from figuring out what training police officers need to handle a potential traffic stop or crash involving an automated vehicle, to completely rethinking parking (how much, where, and at what price?), to understanding the role of public transit agencies in ensuring equitable access as the technology changes.

Briefing with MSU’s new CANVAS research center

The following week, I was invited to speak at a Great Lakes International Trade and Transport Hub briefing at MSU. Several faculty in MSU’s engineering college presented on their CANVAS–Connected and Autonomous Networked Vehicles for Active Safety–research center. Other presentations ranged from Andreas Mai’s V@S model estimating $5 Trillion in global value from CAV over the next decade, to the Stratford, Ontario, city-wide connected mobility pilot projects.

My own comments included a summary of the Region 9 findings. More importantly, though, I focused on the role of policy in shaping the impacts of automated driving—just as policy decisions, from engineering standards to real estate finance programs, played a huge role in determining what personal automobiles meant for our communities.

Technology has a significant impact on the shape of our communities--but the policy context that technology operates in can matter even more.

Technology has a significant impact on the shape of our communities–but the policy context that technology operates in can matter even more.

Future Cities regional workshops

Yesterday, I attended the first of a series of regional meetings that Center for Automotive Research is running on behalf of MDOT and MEDC, examining the impacts of connected vehicles, automated driving, and “mobility services” such as ZipCar, Uber/Lyft, and bikeshare.

CAR are the automotive experts, and cautioned that “level 5” general-purpose automated driving is still far enough over the horizon that they can’t make any reasonable predictions about when it will arrive, let along become widespread. Mobility services, however, are widespread in larger cities now, and both connected vehicle and driver-assist technology (such as lane-keeping and blind-spot detection) is becoming more common on new vehicles, so these may be more critical to plan for now.

One “fun” fact from the CAR presentation were estimates that full deployment of connected vehicle tech could save up to 22% of fuel usage even before hybrid or electric tech or increased CAFE standards are considered. Considering how heavily our transportation funding is based in the gas tax, this could pose a Big Problem by eroding maintenance budgets that much more quickly.

New readings look downstream

Two good pieces came out last week as well, on different facets of CAVs:

  • CityObservatory dives into CAVs, traffic, and road funding. “Given that we think that many of the persistent problems with our current transportation system stem from getting the prices wrong, we think that the way that autonomous vehicles will change the cost and price of urban transportation will be key to shaping their impacts.” They suggest that a VMT model with “surge pricing” that considers where and when the vehicle is driving could be the best way to fund our transportation system and manage congestion as ridesharing and automated driving become more popular.
  • Benedict Evans, a tech venture capitalist, thinks down some rabbit holes about the effects of both automated driving and auto electrification: e.g. if electric vehicles become widespread (or AVs can fuel themselves without you), your neighborhood may no longer need gas stations—and the convenience stores attached to those gas stations may go away too, without a captive user base of people buying gas. And, “well over half of US tobacco sales happens at gas stations, and there are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption,” meaning reduced car crashes might not be the only health benefit of electric and autonomous vehicles.

What’s next? Watch carefully, plan flexibly.

Where the Capital Conference and MSU events surveyed some potential effects over the next 1-10 years, the CityObservatory and Evans pieces demonstrate just how far-reaching the impacts could be over the longer term.

I’d be a sucker to say I knew what these outcomes will be, though, despite (or because of?) all of the above. My expectation is that we’ll start seeing semi-automated trucking platoons on our interstates and ridehailing/taxi-style or micro-transit automated services in larger urban areas in the 5-10 year timeframe, and we’ll need to remain agile in figuring out what combination of directing, managing, and adapting to the impacts of these changes is possible.

As envisioned in this Swedish video, CAVs and placemaking can be very compatible, if we prioritize space for people over space for vehicles.

As envisioned in this Swedish video, CAVs and placemaking can be very compatible, if we prioritize space for people over space for vehicles.

Meanwhile, carshare (like ZipCar or GM’s new Maven), ridehailing (like Uber or Lyft), and bikeshare are options available now that can support local placemaking efforts to expand transportation choices available to residents–and can help shape the travel habits that we bring to automated driving.

Center for Automotive Research recently presented their draft findings on what connected and autonomous vehicles mean for our communities, as part of the November Stakeholder Summit for Prosperity Region 9 (the “Greater Ann Arbor Region”).  The research team’s work has largely been guided by the discussion at the League’s September Convention on Mackinac, where we used a breakout session to hear from members about the concerns they had in thinking about how to adapt to self-driving cars. A final report is expected in January, and will be the topic of a session at our 2017 Capitol Conference.

“Nobody wants to be Betamax”

Of course, many of these findings will still be hypotheticals—what CAVs could mean—since we’re still very early in the development and adoption curve. As the CAR team noted, truly automated driving is still not available on the market, even in limited and access-controlled conditions like freeway driving, let alone in wide enough use to understand people’s reactions to it.

Current CAV technology is at "level 2", supporting human driving. Actual automated driving is anticipatedin the next 5 years, but is not on-road yet.

Current CAV technology is at “level 2”, supporting human driving. Actual automated driving is anticipatedin the next 5 years, but is not on-road yet.

The most ambitious promises from companies like Tesla suggest options may arrive in the next few years, but widespread use is likely years beyond that: CAR’s Eric Dennis noted that automotive technology typically takes up to 30 years to reach 90% saturation of the on-road fleet of vehicles. And, as one participant noted during discussion, “nobody wants to be the Betamax,” the road agency who invests heavily in the wrong direction by guessing too early what needs to be done.

For example, in September the question came up, will US DOT or MDOT be offering funding to pay for all the new striping needed on streets for automated driving to work?  CAR’s Dennis noted that striping is “beneficial, but not necessary” for current approaches to automated vehicles, and that AASHTO and SAE are working on guidelines for CAV-oriented lane markings—cities and other road agencies should probably not rush out to preemptively stripe every local street in advance of such guidance.

But nor should we be passive observers

A wait-and-see approach to developing technology has its limits, though. Letting driverless tech alone choose the pace and direction of change, and make demands on our communities, will not yield the best results.  Instead, we should be thinking ahead about how to incorporate the opportunities this tech could offer: planning, not reacting.

Is this the entrance to a great downtown, or a grand prix starting line?

We’ve been down the road of letting mobility tech call the shots before, by letting cars drive development patterns for the past half-century.  We’ve built bypasses around our towns in the name of traffic flow, and watched our Main Streets dry up for lack of customers when everybody drove around town instead.  We’ve turned neighborhood streets into pairs of one-way multi-lane drag strips, making it potentially fatal to walk across the street to visit your neighbor. We continue to tear down historic buildings in the name of having “enough” free parking, punching holes in our communities. Sure, all of this means that we can get places 30 seconds faster, but only by making huge steps backwards away from creating great places.

Planning for CAVs, rather than letting them plan for us

As our cars become self-driving, we should make sure that this change works for our communities, rather than making our communities work for autonomous driving technology—we need to plan intentionally to utilize these new technologies for our benefit, rather than simply wait and see what changes the technology wants us to acquiesce to.

Dr. Lisa Schweitzer captures this in Choice and Speculation an article in the latest issue of Cityscape:

“According to most speculation, driverless technologies will “transform” things. Technology is always the actor, like some unalterable force that sets the terms by which cities and human life will unfold. [However,] Individuals, governments, and businesses have choices about how they create, sell, and use technology…We have choices about how we distribute the benefits and burdens wrought by driverless vehicle technology. Those social, economic, and political choices can influence human life in cities just as much as, if not more than, the technology changes, and those choices will shape the technology as much as the technology will inform and influence choice.”

On this note, the work we’ve been doing with CAR and PSC helps to capture our local policymakers’ concerns about driverless tech, and to compile what’s known about the state and trajectory of that tech, and we look forward to presenting those findings.

Building on this foundation, though, we’ve got plenty of work left to do in figuring out those social, economic, and political choices ahead of us. This technology will offer monumental changes in how people might live our lives, and we have to recognize the limits of policy in societal change–but that limit is not 0.

I’ll be writing more on this in future posts, but welcome your thoughts in the meantime on how we accomplish this, whether in person, via email at rmurphy@mml.org or on Twitter @murphmonkey.