Have senators? Ask them to let cities and states shape how autonomous vehicles affect us all

Image by Becky Stern licensed under Creative Commons.

Autonomous vehicles could be terrific for our walkable urban places: they could be far safer than the extremely fallible human drivers. However, they also could lead to more driving, more long super-commutes, and even empty vehicles circling the block while owners go to meetings. 

Cities and states are studying how to best ensure AVs are a positive, not a negative. Unfortunately, responding to lobbying by AV manufacturers, Congress is poised to take away many of the potential tools cities and states could use to shape the way AVs affect our transportation networks. If you live outside DC, please ask your Senators to put the brakes on this legislation.

The current bill would do a few things. One section would forbid cities and states from regulating AVs at all, except "registration, licensing, driving education and training, insurance, law enforcement, crash investigations, safety and emissions inspections, congestion management ... or traffic." That carve-out might seem like it lets cities and states do what they need to do, except any regulation on those item can't be "an unreasonable restriction."

What that means in practice is that any regulation anyone makes will get challenged in court by car makers as "unreasonable." Judges, who are usually not technology experts, will then have to make that decision. 

Further, the bill limits what data the US Department of Transportation can collect and how much safety regulation it can do. Transportation for America writes, "While the bill does require manufacturers testing AVs to report all crashes to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and produce a publicly available annual safety report, there are no requirements for sharing more robust real-time or near-real-time data with cities or states. This ensures that no one other than the private companies doing the testing will be able to learn anything from the massive amounts of data produced by the tests."

T4America has an action alert that concerned individuals can use to contact their senators. The Senate Commerce Committee is going to mark up a bill on Wednesday. Those of us in DC have no senators to contact, but if you live in a state, please contact them. Right now, Democrats and Republicans alike in the Senate are ignorant of the destructive effects their bill may have.

Through DCST, I've been convening advocates, business leaders, and government officials to discuss the impact of AVs on our region. I'm planning to write more about my conclusions soon—but if this bill passes, many of the tools we might want to use to ensure AVs make transportation better, not worse, might be foreclosed or at least subject to endless legal challenges.

Please ask your senators (if you have some) to not rush into preempting all cities and states from shaping their transportation systems, something they've always been able to do with non-automated vehicles.