Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is disruptive. And without well-conceived policies AVs, could re-create the auto-centric dystopia worse than we have today: exacerbated congestion as we have a new fleet of zero-occupant vehicles circulating; inducing longer trips since people could do other things while driving; and worsen transportation’s accessibility and equity.
But if our public policies steer the direction of the disruption, we can use AVs to accomplish broad societal goals. Here are some ways that can play out:
Programming to improve mobility for all
AVs are essentially computerized transportation – a marriage between Silicon Valley and Detroit. As such, we can program them as a system to accomplish societal goals. A few examples of what could be done:
- Give buses and emergency vehicles virtual lanes as other vehicles could be programmed to move out of their way upon approach. I call this “lane clearance.” This could even be scaled to give priority to higher-occupant vehicles. Forty-passenger buses could have priority over 22-passenger shuttles, which have priority over 12-passenger micro-buses, which have priority over 6-passenger vans, etc.
- Once lane clearance technology is reliable, we could allow buses to travel as high speeds, perhaps 120 or even 150 miles per hour on freeways. Our regional freeway systems could become high-speed regional bus networks with stops along the way, and transfers at interchanges. We could also have high-speed bus service between regions.
- Price trips according to the number of passengers in vehicles, greenhouse gas emitted, miles travelled, congestion levels, etc.
- Allow the vehicle-to-infrastructure communication set the desired vehicle speed. Set different speeds for different types of vehicles, providing priority to higher-occupant vehicles.
- Automatically close streets for farmers’ markets and other street events.
- Allow only vehicles of, say eight passengers or more, into downtown areas at certain times.
- Allow only certain vehicles on residential streets.
- Program residential streets to five miles per hour during certain hours to allow kids to play (or even adults) on streets.
- AV technology will essentially create “virtual infrastructure”. As the above examples show, the computer can dedicate lanes, set speeds, determine where and when vehicles can go. This may eliminate the need for costly physical infrastructure of some types.
These are just a few examples. Once we’ve given up control of the driving, we can let the system make decisions for us. We tell our smart phones where we want to go and the system will take us there, similar to a ride at the carnival.
Setting policies to improve mobility for all
The thorniest aspect to all of this will be establishing a political culture that sufficiently agrees to the decisions that get programmed into the computer. Decisions regarding the functioning of streets today are usually made by local transportation engineers in what has been viewed as an agnostic exercise suited for experts only.
But computerizing an entire transportation system will need many more value-laden decisions. Who will decide if the speed limit should be 15, 25 or 35 mph on a given street? How much priority should we give higher-occupant vehicles?
I believe that heavily favoring higher-occupant vehicles will be key to eliminating congestion and reducing greenhouse gases, but will others agree with me? There will also be pressure from businesses to favor their service, or to take people past their billboards.
We may need some sort of an “algorithm board” that makes these decisions. Will this be the city council, or a separately elected or appointed board? Further, will the centralized computer that programs all of this be on the city level, regional level or state level? We will likely need at least some local input to make decisions for local streets, but other decisions might be made at a higher level.
As we computerize our transportation systems, the politics around AV algorithms will bring out the age-old debate over how much government regulation we use, versus how much we let some amorphous “market” make the decisions. I believe that if we take the market approach we’ll have a classic “tragedy of the commons” where everyone takes more than their fair share of the streets, and we’ll all be stuck with congestion, lack of access and all the other aspects of the auto-centric dystopia.
If we realize the power of this technology, and harness it in a democratic fashion, it can help us do great things for our communities. I stress democratic here because AV technology’s power could also be used as a tool to control people by an autocratic government. We need to get this right.
Photo by Oran Viriyincy