Why a City’s or County’s First Autonomous Vehicle Project Should Be ‘Boring’

An electric, driverless shuttle produced by EasyMile drives as part of an experiment in Paris, France.

An electric, driverless shuttle produced by EasyMile drives as part of an experiment in Paris, France. Christophe Ena / AP Photo


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Localities like Contra Costa County are piloting non-consumer AVs like shuttles, which are great for getting early feedback and benefit all residents.

A future with 100 percent autonomous vehicles, however distant, might seem like one without need for local transportation planning, but the Contra Costa Transportation Authority in the San Francisco Bay Area updated its countywide plan last year in anticipation of decades of resulting disruption.

The CCTA was the first to secure a level-four, or fully autonomous, AV to address first- and last-mile challenges. Los Angeles County obtained its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration waiver to operate AVs on public streets first, but the local regulatory environment there has slowed deployment.

By contrast, Contra Costa County, home to around 1.1 million residents, hasn’t sought to regulate AVs outside of adhering to California state standards, procuring two autonomous shuttles with plans for two more and ultimately a fleet of 150.

“Our board and local elected officials have said we’re open for business,” Randy Iwasaki, CCTA executive director, told Route Fifty by phone.

The ongoing challenge AVs pose is their interaction with existing transportation systems. AV systems depend on sensor networks, and those sensors will provide plenty of data on what the autonomous vehicles are doing. But as AVs scale, it’ll be harder to track what’s happening to all other vehicles on the road.

AV disruption of local transportation networks will be both positive and negative, with proponents citing reduced driving costs and increased productivity. But AVs could also lead to an overall increase in driving overall, which makes it harder to ease congestion on local streets and roadways.

Much like GPS navigation and Waze rerouting drivers to less-trafficked roads—much to the annoyance of some local communities—pavement life cycles could be shortened in unexpected areas.

For AVs to function properly, road signage must be visible—free of brush and graffiti—striping clear and potholes minimal. Already complex AV infrastructure supporting vehicle-to-vehicle communications is in development, but basic road maintenance will be a more valuable commodity, Laura Schewel, CEO of San Francisco-based StreetLight Data, said in a phone interview.

“If we frame it as part of AV readiness, there might be more excitement and funding behind core maintenance for all roads,” she said.

General Motors’ first foray into AVs has focused on the non-consumer side: delivery vans that won’t double park—causing congestion. The earliest AVs should be “boring” maintenance vehicles, garbage trucks and shuttles that provide feedback for future self-driving cars while performing tasks that benefit everyone, Schewel said.

Contra Costa County identified a problem where residents had trouble getting from their homes to public transit. When they could drive to a transit station, parking was often full. Out of its Concord-based GoMentum Station, the largest secure testing facility for AVs in the U.S. since 2014, solutions are being piloted.

The city of San Ramon, about 35 miles east of San Francisco, will test the county’s shuttles at a local business park with 30,000 workers. The hope is that the shuttles will close the first- and last-mile gap for commuters that can’t reach a Bay Area Rapid Transit rail station to take express buses into the park, where parking is limited.

Iwasaki also sees applications for shuttles helping out with expensive, inefficient paratransit and transit for seniors too old to drive.

“Ask a lot of questions, hire good consultants and don’t be afraid to take some risk,” he advised other localities interested in getting AVs on their roads.

Most cities monitoring transportation data track “level of service,” a measure of congestion, but in the age of AVs they should also be analysing “time to work” for all jobs and incomes as a measure of accessibility, as well as time to health and time to daycare. “Vehicle miles traveled” helps cities understand emissions. Safety, too, should be watched as AVs will reduce deaths per mile traveled, Schewel said.

Negative consequences of AVs could include isolation and an exaggerated income gap.

“Cities should begin investing in understanding themselves and their baselines more clearly,” Schewel said. “The need for transit, bike lanes and pedestrian access is not going away.”

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Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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