Article Features Jennifer Cohen

Planning for Self-Driving Cars

Jennifer Cohen is director of government affairs for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and can be reached at

New innovation and technology that come with “smart cities” offer ways for cities to better identify constituent needs, deliver services more effectively and create new economic opportunities. However, pitfalls must be avoided to help ensure the successful roll-out of cutting-edge projects. At the League of California Cities 2017 Annual Conference & Expo, a session titled “Embracing Innovation and Not Getting ‘Outsmarted’” will provide a summary of important policy and legal issues that need to be considered when implementing new smart city initiatives, including privacy, cybersecurity, data management and analysis, information sharing and insurance. Participants will learn about the steps they can take to mitigate potential risks and hear an overview of key contractual issues. Speakers on this panel include Gregory Rodriguez and Leeann Habte from the law firm of Best Best & Krieger and Jennifer Cohen, director of government affairs for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. In this article, Cohen addresses one of the issues that the panel will discuss at the session. —Editor

Automated vehicles will revolutionize transportation in the most substantial way since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Letting robots take the wheel could usher in game-changing impacts to mobility, safety, congestion reduction, air quality and land use. However, without proactive policy guidance from cities, self-driving cars — also known as autonomous vehicles (AVs) — will exacerbate the transportation woes that already plague California. Public officials need to focus on core transportation values and objectives and act quickly to enact policies and plans to ensure positive outcomes and avert disaster.

The greatest potential gains offered by AVs are in public safety. In 2016, over 35,000 people died in traffic accidents nationwide — 7 percent more than in the previous year. These numbers are expected to keep rising because the number of miles driven is also increasing. Ninety percent of automobile crashes are caused by human error, so removing the human component of driving has the immense potential to make our roads safer. Remember, computers do not drink and drive, sleep deprivation does not affect them and they are not distracted by text messages or crying babies. The potential of AVs to prevent reckless driving and save lives is profound and is the greatest benefit of deploying this technology.

But we cannot overlook our most vulnerable road users: the very young, the very old and those who walk, roll and pedal. As AV technology develops, we need it to do more than protect those inside the vehicles. AV technology must also be used to avoid striking pedestrians and cyclists. Balancing the protection of the passengers inside the vehicle with that of the people outside the vehicle may create an ethical challenge for AV software developers, but it must be acknowledged — all potential human contact must be considered.

Issues of Equity

Driving has long been a symbol of freedom and independence, and automation has the potential to extend those benefits to those who have been unable to drive due to physical or fiscal challenges. AVs can increase access to employment, education and other vital resources. Such access cannot be limited to affluent consumers (like new technology often is) and exclude those with the most to gain. The safety and mobility benefits of this technology need to be accessible to all, regardless of income, age or other characteristics. Government needs to address the integration of AV in ways that transcend diverse populations, including those on the wrong side of the “digital divide,” to maximize the benefits of this technology.

Data and Funding Needs

While there is much about the AV future that we do not know, we can be certain that without a reliable funding stream and transportation data, we will not be able to efficiently deliver and maintain a street and road network that supports full AV functionality. To build the cities of the future, planners and engineers need to understand what causes AV crashes and failures. We need to learn what impact pavement condition, signage, striping and potholes have on AV operations. In addition, understanding how and where people travel will allow cities to build curb capacity (the amount of space along the curb used for parking or other purposes) and transit stations that truly meet travelers’ needs. This information on behavior should not be obscured as proprietary to a business or treated as a trade secret and kept from public access. On the contrary, this information is the fundamental building block of the safety and efficiency of our future cities. In this vein, cities will need to enhance their data analysis skills and resources — and may require leadership from the state and federal government on this front.

Cities currently rely heavily on gas taxes and parking meter/citation revenues to finance a wide range of municipal services. The advent of more automated vehicles that either do not require parking or don’t make mistakes will drastically curtail this revenue. Meanwhile, the new infrastructure will need to support automation, the likes of which have not yet been identified. For example, AVs will need cybersecurity protections and street signage that communicates directly with vehicles — and these will require funding.

Congestion and Land Use

AVs are a terrific addition to the “first and last mile” toolbox, but they cannot supplant mass transit or active transportation and reap the aforementioned benefits. If AVs make long commutes more appealing and investment in mass transit stagnates, congestion will increase. Government must continue to incentivize shared use and investments in mass transit, walking and cycling.

AVs will use road space more efficiently and likely reduce parking demand, which will free up land to be used in new ways. Surface parking lots and parking minimums may soon be part of a bygone era. This can make land available for more affordable housing and open space, two things that most metropolitan areas need. But again, this benefit will be possible only with deliberate choices to incentivize shared use and continued investment in transit.

Environmental Issues: AVs Must Be EVs

Transportation is responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and vehicle exhaust contributes heavily to the incidence of pulmonary illnesses. To address this clear link, California has adopted several policies and regulatory frameworks to reduce emissions and increase environmental protections. The advent of a new type of vehicle presents an opportunity to make a leap forward in reducing greenhouse gas generation and improving air quality by requiring such vehicles to be electric.

The future of automation is bright if established public policy goals guide automation and technology. However, if business opportunity drives policy, the benefits to society may be stunted. It is incumbent on cities and the public sector to play a proactive role and engage with stakeholders on this topic.

Learn More About Innovation at the Annual Conference

Want to hear more about this topic? Attend the “Embracing Innovation and Not Getting ‘Outsmarted’” session at the League of California Cities 2017 Annual Conference & Expo. The session will be held Thursday, Sept. 14, from 4:15 to 5:30 p.m. See the conference program for location details.

Photo credit: Devrimb

This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Western City
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