City Governments Need a Role in Autonomous Vehicles

We believe that autonomous vehicles are pretty cool and all of us, well, most of us, are looking forward to self-driving cars. But there are still huge legal and technical challenges to implement autonomous driving technology and not just on the federal level. City governments are in a quandary as they grapple with a spate of self-driving start-ups.

On the one hand, autonomous vehicles could alleviate big cities’ traffic congestion problems if they’re implemented properly, but because this is a new technology that is moving at breakneck speed local governments can’t keep up. In an age of budget cuts and increased infrastructure costs at the local level, city departments can’t afford to staff up to try and figure out the ramifications of what an autonomous future might look like. Even if you’re not a fan of local government, they still have to do their jobs and figure out how to issue permits and tickets, assign traffic lanes and parking spots, manage public transit, road maintenance, traffic flow, and more. If they don’t have the resources to do a good job, you better expect a lousy job—and that means more congestion, shitty roads, more tickets, and potential civil and criminal suits after car accidents.

The pressure on cities is growing, as most estimates point that you can expect to see the autonomous tsunami hit the roads in the early 2020s, which, for the record, is not that far away. The real issue is that the whole conversation is being monopolized and driven by the private sector and hypothetical federal regulations. Local governments haven’t gotten to the table yet, and some have even bowed out due to the potential challenges—instead, hoping that the state and federal government will pick up the tab and the responsibility for any problems when the shit hits the fan. And you can’t really blame them when you think about what our cities will have to try and make changes to a whole host of laws with almost no guidance from state and federal leaders.

What’s really scary, at least from where we’re sitting, is that this might end up being the tail wagging the dog. The private sector is making big promises around self-driving cars on a fast timetable—and pushing hard to get test vehicles on the road in real-world conditions—before we know whether or not they work. That means that nobody knows what’s going to go wrong until it’s too late. Either way, local governments are still going to be responsible for operating and maintaining our roads whether or not humans are behind the wheel. That means they need to be at the table, and we sure as hell hope it’s sooner rather than later.