Most Big Cities Are Planning for Autonomous Vehicles


The National League of Cities has seven recommendations for those looking to launch pilots.

More than half of the largest U.S. cities are preparing for autonomous vehicles in their long-range transportation plans—up from less than 10 percent three years ago, according to a new National League of Cities report.

Between 2011 and 2017, 22 states passed 46 bills, and five governors signed executive orders related to AV development and use—most permitting pilots. A second wave is underway with 28 states introducing 98 bills in 2018, according to “Autonomous Vehicle Pilots Across America”.

Pilot projects range from informal agreements to structured contracts between cities and AV companies.

“Mayors are welcoming in that innovation and really trying to get an understanding of how these self-driving cars will interact with the urban environment in a particular place,” Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of NLC’s Center for City Solutions, told Route Fifty.

Close to fully autonomous vehicles are being piloted by Google subsidiary Waymo in Chandler and Phoenix in Arizona. Several companies are operating in Pittsburgh.

Uber saw a setback in Tempe, Arizona, when one of its AVs hit and killed a woman walking her bicycle across the street in March, and local police are seeking a manslaughter charge against the driver, who video shows was watching “The Voice” on her phone at the time.

Still, AVs bring with them the promise of 90 to 99 percent fewer traffic fatalities, Rainwater said.

Waymo is testing in 15 to 20 markets because much of the work around self-driving cars is based on data and mapping; the more miles traveled, the better, he added.

Arlington, Texas has already purchased autonomous shuttles and is working with the private sector on a pilot, while no Arizona city has a formal agreement with an AV company because the state controls everything.

Transportation officials and automakers have both pressed Congress to codify a federal framework for testing and operating AVs, but no timetable exists for what seems like a nonpartisan issue. In the meantime, states and localities have shown few signs of slowing down on their own regulations.

“I think that we’re in a place where [federal rules] can be rolled out with existing regulations and legislation on the books,” Rainwater said. “Final rules of the road will help the industry long term, but I don’t see what’s been playing out as a true impediment.”

NLC’s report recommends localities thinking about setting up a pilot of their own start by outlining their goals and metrics before partnering with consultants, tech companies, outside groups, or academia to form a consortium.

After engaging the private sector, governments should consider creating a regional alliance because AVs will inevitably cross jurisdictions, Rainwater said.

To scale a pilot appropriately, finances, timeframes, geography and safety precautions must all be taken into account, according to the report.

Intergovernmental coordination is important, as is a phased plan that gradually introduces AVs to a community, Rainwater said.

Boston is in the midst of AV mobility tests backed by the World Economic Forum, while Portland remains in the planning phase. But those plans are focused on service delivery rather than vehicle delivery because the city wants to improve residents’ access to education and jobs while avoiding congestion privately owned AVs could bring.

Portland’s pilot is targeting a 2019 start, so there’s time to incentivize ride-sharing and deployment in high-need areas, Rainwater said.

“This new technology has the potential to build equity and create opportunities for vulnerable populations,” said Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of NLC, in a statement. “As always, cities are supporting the needs of their residents and meeting them where they are, both literally and figuratively.”