Four Ways Driverless Cars will Impact Local Governments

December 16, 2015 – Brandon Camhi

We begin Driver’s Education with two hands on the wheel. Then many of us (improperly?) place only one hand on the wheel as our confidence surges. But within twenty years, almost all of us will take both hands off the wheel. Permanently. Movies like Will Smith’s I, Robot and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall feature scenes with driverless cars, but they omit what governments should expect as the technology becomes a reality. And although these considerations are not Hollywood material, they are as important to governments and society as actors and actresses are to filmmakers.

Local governments should expect the following four effects from driverless cars:

1. Safer roads: Accidents caused by human actions like texting, fiddling with the GPS, or bad driving are common; human errors breed over 90% of accidents. These accident rates will plunge as people adopt driverless cars that are programmed to follow traffic laws and react to surrounding conditions. Deaths, injuries, and road closures from human-caused accidents will become historical relics, relegated to special exhibits at car museums and scenes in historically-oriented films.

2. New revenue challenges: Fewer tickets mean fewer dollars. Traffic violation fines help fill government coffers, and this revenue source is essential to governments without many fee-based services. Driverless cars will follow traffic laws, and if they do not, there are ethical questions about holding humans responsible. Parking fee revenues will also decline if companies like Uber leverage driverless cars to shuttle passengers, reducing consumers’ incentives to park and own a car.

3. Transformations in bus transit: Cities like Lausanne, Switzerland, and Trikala, Greece already operate driverless buses alongside human drivers, and countless cities in America will follow these examples. Governments may still subsidize public transportation for citizens, but these buses will reduce a need for human operators. Collaboration with workers and union leaders will become essential to retrain transit operators, and prepare them for this new era.

4. Infrastructure planning and maintenance will grow more important: Decreased lane widths — made possible by fewer veering drivers — will enable planners to pack more lanes into streets, reducing traffic. Planning officials can also hike speed limits in some areas; driverless cars will react quicker than humans do to pedestrians running across the street and other surprises. Cat-like reflexes will become car-like reflexes. Fast, driverless-only lanes will enable commute times unthinkable for human drivers. 

A need for infrastructure planning complements a need for improved infrastructure maintenance. Rough street conditions and broken traffic signals may confuse autonomous vehicles more than they would confuse a human driver. If laws impose more liability on cities for their infrastructure, then cities would face even more pressure to maintain streets and traffic signals. Maintenance will also become more predictable as officials can divert cars from roadwork and construction areas with the click of a button.

Driverless cars will transform cities on a level unprecedented since Ford’s Model T proliferated across America. Governments will have to consider how this technology will impact their strategic plans and budgets, and plan for these effects. 

Category: GovTech