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Progressive Voice: Autonomous Vehicles — On the Street Where You Live?

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or

By Kelley Coyner

Less than a year ago the city of Arlington, Texas, became the first municipal government to deploy an automated transportation service — a cute shuttle named Milo. In a couple of weeks, Arlington, Texas will move ahead with an autonomous vehicle (AV) taxi.

Meanwhile in Arlington, Virginia, we are beginning to look at how to launch similar services. The technology is moving forward quickly, especially for lower speed AVs that mix well with pedestrians and bicyclists. What should we be thinking about this technological game changer?

Money talks: First focus on economic development, job loss and creation, and revenue loss

Our Arlington and its neighbors — including their transportation agencies — need to look at the impacts of AVs (what some people call “self-driving” vehicles) on their revenue. Greater fuel efficiency and shifts to electric vehicles will accelerate the downward spiral of gas tax revenues. Changed ownership models also may undercut personal property tax and rental-car tax revenues. Decreased demand for parking may cut into parking revenues and an anticipated decline in traffic violations will reduce revenue from fines. Secondary impacts include the potential for decreased revenue from transit and toll fares.

Understand equity

AVs can dramatically improve opportunities for blind, older and younger riders — if we consider those travelers in the planning and design. You need only try to find your Lyft or Uber in Clarendon to appreciate that we need to pay attention to the last 50 feet from home or restaurant to your ride. Also, let’s make sure that shared vehicles are universally designed starting with wheelchair access. Meanwhile nationally, job and wage losses could hit transit and taxi drivers, delivery drivers, truckers, bus operators and Lyft/Uber drivers disproportionately, so training programs will need to come into play.

Figure out what you want your place to be like

Over the years, Arlington, Virginia, has given thought and taken action on the intersection between transportation and land use. How might AVs change all this yet again? How might they change our affordable and workforce housing? Is there a new paradigm for transit-rich hubs that also include shared-AV drop-off areas, electric charging stations, and rich networks of walking and bike paths?

What to worry about: Favor safety gains and protect against cyber dangers

There are indeed real reasons to be worried about the vulnerability of automated vehicles to cyber-attack. The answer is to address that risk, not to let it highjack automated technologies that protect occupants and people in the path of the AVs, such as pedestrians, bicyclists and people at bus stops.

That said, I am flabbergasted when anyone is dismissive about the potential of saving a portion of 37,000 lives that are currently lost to human-caused crashes each year. Most traffic accidents are attributable to human error. To be sure we need to take steps to operate AVs safely. Experts such as researchers at Rand note that the sooner we start adopting automated technologies, the more lives will be saved.

Define your principles and set measurable objectives to reach them

Beyond those first four paths I think cities should take, there are still many ways to maximize the safety and environmental benefits while guarding against increased congestion, sprawl, job loss and the further weakening of public transit. Arlington should start by understanding how AVs can help and hurt us and then set a course that allows us to experiment safely with AVs.

We should avoid esoteric debates about obscure hypotheticals, and instead, focus on understanding the implications of an automated mobility. Then pull out all the stops to safely channel the technology revolution on the street where you live.

Kelley Coyner is CEO and Founder of Mobility e3. A Senior Fellow at George Mason University, she advises cities on how to analyze the pluses and minuses of autonomous vehicles. She lives with her family in central Arlington.

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