Driverless cars, or autonomous vehicles, may seem like futuristic technologies that are decades away from the mass market, but BI Intelligence estimates that there will be over 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020. That’s only a fraction of the ~250 million vehicles on the road, but it represents a blistering 134 percent annual growth rate.
Tesla’s AutoPilot is the most well-known example of a near-fully-autonomous vehicle, but there are a growing number of other vehicles with autonomous-like features, such as lane assists to help drivers stay in lanes or adaptive cruise control to automatically adjust speed. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration classifies these technologies into categories, ranging from zero (no automation) to five (full automation).
Driver Assistance and Partial Automation vehicles (levels one and two) have already started to enter production, while the government agency expects that fully automated vehicles will take over in 2025 and beyond. This means that municipalities should start preparing immediately in order to be ready when these vehicles hit the road in less than seven years.
These new technologies pose challenges to municipalities, but strategies to deal with them are already being developed.There will be over 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020 – are you ready for the challenges they bring? Click To Tweet
Liability & Insurance
States are responsible for enacting the rules and regulations surrounding the liability and insurance of motor vehicles. After a string of high-profile incidents involving autonomous vehicles, liability and insurance considerations have become popular points of concern since the question of fault isn’t as obvious as with conventional motor vehicles.
The good news is that existing tort and contract law frameworks are generally well-equipped to handle these questions, according to the Brookings Institute, which means that broad state laws may not be necessary. The researchers note that product liability law has historically been remarkably adaptive to new technologies. Autonomous vehicles are no exception.
Over the long term, the federal government may introduce new safety standards that will have implications for autonomous vehicle liability. The NHTSA is conducting research on self-driving vehicles ahead of such standards, but in the meantime, the incentive for manufacturers to provide safe autonomous vehicle technologies are extremely high.
Clear Lane Striping
The first thing that drivers notice when piloting an autonomous vehicle is the reliance on clear lane striping. If lanes are not clearly painted, the vehicle’s autonomous mode will typically disengage and force the driver to take control. If lanes suddenly change directions or don’t follow standard practices, the vehicle might veer in unexpected directions or even take them off the road.
While these are relatively minor issues right now, they could become a greater concern as vehicles move toward full autonomy. Drivers may be unable to quickly take control if the autonomous mode is disengaged. In some cases, a driver may not. There are also potential challenges with snow or leaf removal if lanes become covered.
Most painted markings last between nine and 36 months, but some water-based paints can be applied at double the thickness of latex paints to extend the life of the markings. Mechanical markings are a common alternative to painted markings, but they aren’t always visible to autonomous vehicles in the same way that they are to human drivers.
Robust Charging Networks
Electric vehicles are growing in popularity alongside autonomous technologies — and ultimately, these two technologies complement each other in many ways. For example, many companies are looking to deploy autonomous ride-sharing fleets, which are often paired with electric vehicle technology because of the rides’ short duration.
One of the biggest issues with electric vehicles is the lack of public chargers in municipal facilities or on highways. While most EV owners charge their vehicles at home for the day, ride sharing services that are looking to build autonomous fleets may require on-the-road charging to maximize their efficiency and minimize congestion.
High-capacity (240v) chargers could be a great way to generate incremental municipal revenue and meet the demand for autonomous EVs. Municipalities may be able to reduce their costs by working with private companies, such as Chargepoint or Tesla, to build out larger infrastructure projects and include charging stations in public parking structures and lots.
Reduced Fine Revenue
Autonomous vehicles are often touted as being much safer than human-driven vehicles — and for good reason. According to the NHTSA, about 94% of serious crashes are due to human error that could be avoided by autonomous vehicles. The NHTSA also found that these accidents cause nearly $600 billion in loss of life and decreased quality of life following injuries.
One of the most significant unintended financial consequences of autonomous vehicles is a reduction in municipal revenue due to fewer traffic violations. In some cities, traffic tickets account for upwards of three percent of the total budget. The rise of autonomous vehicles means that municipalities may want to budget for lower revenue.
Municipalities may want to budget for lower revenue with the rise of autonomous vehicles.
Police & Emergency Response
Autonomous vehicles may be safer than human-driven vehicles, but it could make policing the roads more difficult. For example, will autonomous vehicles recognize when they’re being stopped by a patrol car? Or will they pull over or stop autonomously for an ambulance at an intersection?
Municipalities should consider implementing training procedures for police and emergency services that interact with autonomous vehicles. In addition, they may want to work with manufacturers over the long run to develop a kill switch or alerting mechanism that disables an autonomous vehicle or causes it to safely yield to emergency vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles are likely to benefit the wealthy far more than lower-income residents, which could widen the municipal income gap. For example, the lack of traffic violations on autonomous vehicles could lead to an uptick in fines for lower-income individuals. Autonomous vehicle owners could also benefit from working during a commute once vehicles no longer require any driver intervention.
There are no easy answers to these social justice issues, but the implications should be addressed by municipalities over the long run. For example, a municipality may decide to tax autonomous vehicles and divert those funds to disadvantaged populations, or reduce traffic patrol activities to account for the reduction in violators.
The Bottom Line
Autonomous vehicles are becoming ubiquitous and pose challenges for municipalities — both expected and unexpected. In some cases, there are ways to ease the transition, such as repainting lanes more frequently, but in other cases, the answers to these problems are a lot less obvious and require further thought.
For more information about automated vehicle policy, the NHTSA and U.S. Department of Transportation also released a September 2016 report, Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, that contains a sample state framework and guidance. There is also more information available on the USDOT’s Automated Vehicles portal.
Applied Information offers greater insight and control over municipal transportation devices, ranging from traffic lights to parking guidance, through the use of cellular technology and an open management platform. By moving to a more intelligent and open platform, municipalities can better prepare themselves for the changes that autonomous vehicles will bring along and dramatically improve their existing operations.