Stakeholders must engage policymakers on driverless cars
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Autonomous vehicles hold the promise of reducing vehicular deaths and decreasing fuel consumption.  They create opportunity for Americans who may otherwise be unable to access transportation.  But the advent of driverless cars also raises a host of policy issues for regulators and law makers.   Dozens of industries and thousands of companies have the potential to be impacted by these policies; the time for them to engage in the process is now.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently released a guidance document that lays out the agency’s vision for how to move forward on some key questions.  Some members of Congress have also weighed in with various legislative proposals but there is hardly consensus about how to approach this fast-changing sector.

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Skeptics have argued that autonomous vehicles are decades away and the current swirl of regulatory activity is premature.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The shaping of preliminary policy has already begun and incremental steps are being implemented in the short term.  For example, driverless car zones in certain parts of congested cities; autonomous vehicles in controlled environments like airports, college campuses, business parks, or military bases; “platooning” of trucks and other shippers. 

Now is the time to create a framework for autonomous vehicles.  So far, policy makers have been focused on the broad issues that are raised by the prospect of driverless cars including safety, privacy, liability, security and ethics. However, the impact of autonomous vehicles will be felt by industries well beyond traditional car companies and the tech stakeholders that are currently working on their development. 

Impacted groups include State and local governments, insurance companies, first responders, city planners, parking lot and building owners, shipping and trucking companies, industrial fleet operators, banks and credit unions, livery and taxi companies, road builders and their designers, as well as the tech and communications companies that will build the networks that autonomous vehicles will rely on to function safely.  These are the players who should ensure that their voices are being heard.  

Most important, early decisions set a path that will have significant ripple effects for years to come and therefore impact individuals and industries far beyond these core players.  Some additional impacts could include:

Car Ownership.  Car sharing, ride sharing and carpooling all could see dramatic transformations changing how cars are purchased and financed as well as how they are insured. This could in turn change the basic financing model used by banks and credit unions and how loans or leases are structured.   

Traditional Infrastructure.  Modern roads designed for long haul truckers and commuters with their offramps, traffic lights, guard rails and lane markings have been developed over decades.  Eventually all of this will be impacted should autonomous vehicles become a significant part of our transportation future. 

Technology Infrastructure.  The amount of information needed to flow between an autonomous vehicle and its surroundings is massive, and the demands on data through GPS, cell, and Wi-Fi in transportation corridors will need to be expanded to handle the volume of information.  In addition, those networks will need to be reliable enough to support autonomous vehicles without drops in coverage. 

State and Local Finances.  Municipalities are often dependent on revenue from personal property tax, vehicle registration, local permits, and tolls for roads and bridges.  The emergence of a class of vehicles without owners or drivers could force states and cities to find other forms of revenue as well as fundamentally change the role of the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

Auto Repair Shops, Parts Manufacturers.  Studies indicate that more than 90 percent of all traffic accidents are the result of human error.  Wholesale adoption of self-driving cars would dramatically change the business model for those who repair cars and supply replacement parts. 

These types of questions and many others demonstrate the complexity of policies that need to take shape before the technology can be fully implemented. 

Driverless cars have the potential to change not just the way we move around, but the way we live.  But before we get there, policymakers will have to grapple with significant issues to ensure that these key issues are addressed before driverless cars hit the roads.  This technology is real, and now is the time for stakeholders to be engaging policymakers or they may be left behind. 

Elizabeth Gore is policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck. She provides counsel and guidance on the development and implementation of congressional strategies and regulatory environments, including energy, environmental and resource strategies; and telecommunications and media. Brian Wild is a policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck. He coordinates and manages extensive public affairs campaigns and provides policy advisory and strategy on energy, tax, labor, transportation and health care issues.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.