Government Planners are Woefully Unprepared for Self-Driving Vehicles

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | January 25, 2016

Image via flickr/ptwo

Image via flickr/ptwo

Virtually everyone who follows cities has come to the same basic conclusion: somehow, they’re going to be completely transformed by self-driving vehicles.

Of course, we don’t know how, exactly, that will happen. Maybe the technology will render transit moot. Maybe it will reduce congestion and slow down the push for roadway expansions. Or maybe it will drastically reduce car ownership.

But one group of people who appears to be slow preparing for the implications of self-driving vehicles — ironically enough — are the planners who will be charged with figuring out how to implement them.

A new paper in the Journal of Planning Education and Research says almost all major metropolitan planning organizations have failed to include self-driving vehicles in their long-transportation plans.

Just one of the country’s 25 largest metropolitan planning organizations even mentions driverless vehicles in its most recent plan, according to research by Erick Guerra, an assistant city planning professor at University of Pennsylvania. Guerra’s examination was based on plans in place in spring 2014.

And the one that did — Philadelphia’s Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission — only made a reference to the technology in a sidebar highlighting the uncertainty around it.

The implications of the failure of these organizations to plan for the technology could be huge, Guerra writes.

“Unfortunately, the extent and direction self-driving cars’ impacts, particularly if transformative, are unlikely to be fully understood until they have already started to happen,” Guerra said in his paper.

Metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, are federally mandated policymaking organizations made of representatives from local governments. They’re charged with planning regional transportation priorities, and part of that work involves creating long-range plans every four years.

But Guerra argues MPOs may be shirking their duties, since MPOs (especially those serving the largest cities) “have both the staff and the mandate to consider the implications of driverless cars.”

Essentially, MPOs seem torn between the pressure of conducting planning using the best information available today and the need to conduct long-term planning for a technology that is still relatively nascent. Guerra interviewed 15 MPO planners and granted them anonymity to get more candid insight into why they aren’t planning for driverless cars.

“One of the bigger challenges we have is [to predict] how will autonomous vehicles change travel behavior, and I have no idea,” one of them told Guerra.

“A lot of times our planning processes are more reactionary [sic] than anticipatory,” another said.

Guerra writes that MPOs are unsure how to plan for the technology and seem frustrated that existing reserach doesn’t offer much actionable information on how to prepare for it. But that may be problematic if the technology reaches the market soon.

The good news is that planners aren’t entirely ignoring driverless vehicles. The San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta regions have all started testing various driverless vehicle scenarios into their planning efforts. Guerra found just about all the planners he spoke with were extremely knowledgable about the technology and believed self-driving vehicles would have significant impacts on travel behavior, safety, and infrastructure, among other areas.

And all but a few interviewees said some of their planning efforts, such as focus groups or meetings with experts, explored the implications of autonomous vehicles. But that work isn’t reflected in their official, long-range planning documents.

Interestingly, today’s planners aren’t that unique from their forefathers. In the early 20th century, planners were slow to incorporate automobiles — the kind with human drivers — into transportation and city planning efforts.

Guerra argues that MPOs that want to get ahead of the issue should consider developing plans for self-driving vehicles outside of the more rigid, federally-mandated planning process.

But for now, some of them still seem confused about how, exactly, to do that. “Yes, there’s a discussion [about incorporating autonomous vehicles into planning efforts at our MPO],” one planner told Guerra. “We don’t know what the hell to do about it. It’s like pondering the imponderable.”

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2 Responses

  1. Steven Polunsky says:

    This is an issue the Texas A&M Transportation Institute is addressing through its policy research http://tti.tamu.edu/policy/federal-officials-update-driverless-car-policy-tti-continues-research/

  2. Erick Guerra says:

    I think that woefully unprepared is a big overstatement. As I state in the paper, many large MPO planners are at the forefront of preparing for the impacts of driverless cars. It’s a challenging problem and just one of the many that regional planners address from day to day. In any case, thank you for the summary and disseminating the research. -Erick Guerra, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania

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