Automated Vehicles: Back to the Future

A version of this article first appeared on the Safe Routes to School National Partnership blog by Holly Nickel.

When I was growing up, I thought we’d all be zooming around the skies, by now, in our automated bubble vehicles – like the Jetsons. Turns out, I wasn’t too far off.

Though not for flying around in the blue yonder, automated vehicles (AV) are in our very, very near future. Already, there are actual demonstration AVs on public roads – can you imagine a car or bus without a steering wheel? Vehicles like these are being tested now.

In fact, there is currently a federal bill under consideration to get automated vehicles out on the roads faster. The bill, which has passed in the House and is currently in the Senate, seeks to set up a federal framework for AVs, allow hundreds of thousands of AVs on the roads, and would limit the ability of states and cities to regulate them.

We don’t yet know how AVs will affect communities and active transportation. But AVs bring both opportunities and dangers. If we steer the direction of AV implementation correctly, AVs could make communities better for everyone. Elimination of human error from driving could improve safety, saving lives. In all communities – but especially in low income and communities of color, where walking and biking is more common as a means to commute to work and get necessities – removing human error would reduce our high vehicle-related death and injury rates. With AVs, we could see less individual car ownership, and instead have fewer cars that spent more time taking people where they need to go and less time taking up land for parking. Fewer vehicles dominating public space could mean more room for bike lanes, sidewalks, plazas, and greenspace. AVs could potentially increase safety and access to jobs, goods, and social connection, especially for people in lower income communities, individuals with disabilities, and older adults. Also, if AVs meant fewer cars on the road, reductions in congestion, emissions, and need for parking would benefit all communities, but particularly those in densely populated neighborhoods.

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On the other hand, AVs could have undesirable outcomes. Depending on cost and the policies regulating AVs, owning them may be out of reach for people in lower income brackets. If AVs function primarily as a status symbol and as personal coaches for the rich, we are reinforcing the deep financial divide between the haves and have nots. If AVs simply replace current personal vehicles, their effect may be to increase the dominance of cars on our streets. If cars can simply circulate on their own if no parking is available, they will cause more wear and tear on the roads and an increase in deadly emissions. If owners are allowed to program their AV to speed or ignore traffic safety, people walking and biking could be in danger. Moreover, if commute time becomes leisure time, living further from work and school may become more popular, increasing fossil fuel use, air pollution, and rates of asthma and chronic disease – while decreasing commitment to walkable communities and to neighborhood design that protects greenspace and resources. Street design for AVs could siphon resources and design away from walkable, people-oriented streets.

An additional area of concerns involves safety priorities for AVs. Already, AVs do well at avoiding cars, but poorly at protecting people walking and bicycling from collisions. AVs may end up designed primarily for the safety of those within, secondarily for the safety of other AV passengers, and may place the safety of people walking, bicycling, or driving older cars as a distant third. If this is the scenario, people in low income communities and communities of color, who already experience high rates of injury and mortality while walking and biking, may experience a sweeping increase in rates of vehicle related death and injury. Plus, if our streets end up hosting fleets of circling, closely packed AVs, it could be harder for people to safely cross the street.

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To increase the chances that AVs will be positive for active transportation and low and middle income communities, there are several things that people concerned about healthy, equitable communities need to know.

First and foremost, now is the time to start learning about automated vehicles and implications for active transportation and equity; AVs are increasingly on the roads and the regulatory framework is being developed now. We can’t fall behind in our advocacy. If community members want to make sure equitable active transportation is protected, they need to think about implications for current policy priorities and start anticipating potential upcoming issues and act now. That means residents and advocates of low and middle income communities need to begin inserting their voices into the AV discussion. Depending on how the future unfolds, AVs could enhance biking and walking and equity, but likelier scenarios could lead to significant negative effects. Advocates will also likely need to figure out how to integrate biking and walking priorities into AV infrastructure, while also anticipating the potential that AV infrastructure will be competing for funding against bike/pedestrian infrastructure.

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In addition, the current AV bill that is being worked on by Congress has significant shortcomings – two of which are the most concerning. First, it would pre-empt the ability of cities and states to regulate AVs -even to protect residents from unsafe behaviors. Second, it also precludes any requirements on the sharing of data between AV makers and the cities where the vehicles are being tested and operated -limiting the ability of cities to improve safety and traffic. Some of our partners like Transportation for America (T4A) and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) are working with Congress to try and fix these issues. If you have contacts with your city’s transportation officials or other leaders, encourage them to reach out to NACTO or T4A to learn more and weigh in with Congress too.

So for now, until we are more like the Jetsons and everyone has glass bubble transportation that zooms through the clouds, learning more about AVs and inserting our voices to create a system that benefits everyone is more important than ever. The time to start is now. After all, AVs are our future and we create our own destiny.

To learn more about AVs, check out these resources:

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