Why America Needs a National Autonomous Vehicle Policy

Most concede the current debates regarding the role of federal and state governments in autonomous vehicle development and deployment are a healthy part this new technology’s evolving transformation of society.

At the time of this writing in the fall of 2017, the U.S. House and Senate had outlined essentially similar bills intended to establish a national framework for autonomous vehicle development, testing and deployment.

The details and differences in these bills will of course be hammered out, but there are manifest reasons why some type of national “framework” of guidance, rules and statues addressing autonomous vehicle development is a good prospect for America’s cities.

A national framework of common, consistent rules and regulations will allow cities to enact policies that benefit residents and encourage businesses to invest in the metro area. Cities could depend on these uniform policies to support initiatives that enhance the standard of living for residents living in a high-density environment: from reducing traffic congestion and quieting the streets to making the energy grid more responsive and reliable.

Electrification’s mixed promise

As the internal combustion engine begins to decline and electric motors become the more-dominant propulsion option, cities will be compelled to upgrade their energy infrastructure sooner rather than later; if cities do not start to bolster their energy grids now, the probability of rolling blackouts could become a frequent reality. Spurred by the needs of autonomous and increasingly-electrified personal and shared vehicles, cities could upgrade by adopting smart-grid technology, with battery storage and solar backup to support the increasing demand from electric vehicles.

Although the pace of adoption is indeterminate, vehicle electrification seems inevitable; UBS, for example predicts that by 2025, 14% of global vehicle sales will be electric—up from 1% today.

In the UK, the potential for significant new loads to cripple the grid perhaps is more dire than previously believed; the average household’s electric service reportedly cannot accommodate charging an electric vehicle and boiling a kettle at the same time. For now, that means merely a blown fuse, but in the future, a dramatic increase in electricity demand could lead to much more critical consequences.

Upgrading the energy infrastructure is a clear example of how a city can play to its unique strengths. For autonomous vehicle developers looking to test and deploy services in cities, a robust and ever-upgrading energy grid is an attractive incentive to operate in that town.

Cites as laboratories

With a national autonomous vehicle framework, cities will become the labs of tomorrow, to the benefit of all. Autonomous-vehicle technologies, services and business models will be perfected on the streets of cities under real-world circumstances, rather than in proving grounds.

Cities should experiment with new ideas and invite autonomous vehicle companies to operate in their city by showcasing their strengths. In Los Angeles alone, there is nearly 500 miles of paved streets on which to test autonomous capabilities.

The city of Los Angeles could leverage this uniquely “LA” asset, creating dedicated autonomous-vehicle lanes similar to the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes already found on Southern California’s freeways. These lanes could operate during select times or on select roadways or corridors.

Dedicated autonomous vehicle lanes could bring a palpable reduction in congestion—if Los Angeles updated its traffic signals with artificial intelligence. The stoplights would learn traffic patterns in real-time and update signaling accordingly.

In the future, on-demand autonomous vehicles will replace traditional buses, as they are more cost-efficient to operate and more convenient for the public. During select times throughout the day, cities could designate autonomous-vehicle lanes as school-bus lanes for children traveling to school. The dedicated AV bus lanes would ensure that children would get to school quickly and safely. During non-school commuting hours, these lanes would revert to conventional duty to channel autonomous vehicle traffic.

SAE Level 5 autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence would be programmed to pick up a child at the correct time each morning. No more worrying about school delays: parents will automatically receive a notification advising of the school delay. Adults will know the autonomous school vehicle will automatically show up at the newly appointed time, allowing everyone’s morning to be more productive.

Unleashing the “autonomy economy”

These advances will come most quickly and efficiently only with an established national autonomous vehicle framework, as entrepreneurs will be encouraged to push the envelope and invest in new technologies that can scale across 50 states, all operating under the same rules and regulations.

Without a standardized national framework, companies and developers will hold back investment and innovations, perhaps looking to deploy services overseas, while assertive states such as Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas will continue to attract autonomous vehicle companies that make the decision to invest in local economies and create new high-paying jobs because of progressive autonomous-vehicle laws.

A national autonomous vehicle framework will unleash the “autonomy economy,” creating millions of new high-paying jobs in the United States. Cities will be able to play to their strengths and support innovation and local investment. Cities will be able to experiment with new ideas and implement policies and practices that better serve the public.

Cities truly are the labs of tomorrow—and a national autonomous vehicle policy will help automated driving technology reach its full potential for enhancing urban life.

Why America Needs a National Autonomous Vehicle Policy is an article written by Brulte & Company Co-Founder Grayson Brulte that was originally published in SAE International Autonomous Vehicle Engineering Magazine.