Jakob Owens/Unsplash

Jakob Owens/Unsplash

Last December, car-sharing giant Uber abruptly loaded its prototype autonomous cars onto a trailer and moved its program from California to Arizona after a dispute with state regulators.

“There are a lot of gray areas in existing regulations,” said Sarah Potts Ashton, Uber’s southern California public affairs representative, during ULI Los Angeles’s recent FutureBuild 2017 conference. “The current state regulations were developed in 2012; we’ve seen a lot of changes since then.”

If nothing else, Uber’s conflict with California is a reminder that many complicated hurdles need to be cleared before the much-discussed takeover of autonomous cars. Communities and legislators are wrestling with the realities of regulating and creating infrastructure, even though it remains unclear what role driverless vehicles will play in future mobility. (Although California’s motor vehicles department has since proposed some modifications to the regulation of driverless cars.)

“As much as autonomy is exciting, by itself it is not likely to solve very many problems,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, during the FutureBuild conference, which was staged in conjunction with VerdeXchange.

From a technology standpoint, little doubt exists that autonomous cars will be ready for public roads within a year or two, experts agree. Fifteen companies, including Tesla and Waymo, Google’s recently renamed subsidiary, are already testing driverless cars on streets around the United States. But solutions for the infrastructure and safety issues—and public acceptance—are still far off.

A study by Deloitte released in January found that 74 percent of U.S. consumers don’t believe that autonomous cars are safe. A fatal accident last June involving a Tesla model driven on “auto pilot” generated headlines and renewed concerns about the role that humans play in operating autonomous cars (as well as the definition of term, auto pilot). Google has reported several minor rear-end accidents in tests, in part because driverless cars are following speed limits more closely than human drivers in the cars behind them.

Media reports and technology-focused research “often overlook the safety implications” that a mix of driver-operated and autonomous vehicles will create, according to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released in February. The GHSA advised states to “avoid passing legislation until model laws have been developed,” due to the long list of questions presented by the autonomous car rollout. It could be years before governments and local agencies create the infrastructure to make autonomous cars an efficient part of the mobility mix, panelists at the L.A. event said.

“Infrastructure comes with demand,” said John Eddy, principal infrastructure leader for Arup, at the L.A. event. “When you think of infrastructure, there is a lot of uncertainty out there.”

 On a fundamental level, streets will need to evolve to handle the growth of ride sharing and autonomous vehicles. “One of the biggest things is [that] people need to get in and out of cars,” Eddy said. “It’s fundamental to mobility, and those interactions need a place to happen.”

As a result, “curb space is going to become fundamentally the highest demand in urban environments when it comes to mobility,” he said.

To work efficiently, autonomous cars will require a level of infrastructure that goes beyond street planning, Eddy said. “Data flows are going to be extraordinary,” requiring reliable high-speed networks, he said. And basic improvements will be needed to upgrade road systems to create safe lanes for the combination of driverless and regular traffic.

“Buy paint, lots of paint,” Eddy said. “You’re going to be painting curbs different colors, you’re going to be paining lane markers in different ways.” Signage will be another major issue. “The clutter [of signs] is pretty nasty,” he said. “A lot of those things will have to be swapped and changed and otherwise improved to bring on an autonomous future.”

The public sector is ultimately going to be responsible to design and create this smart network of signs, sensors, parking, and public access for vehicles. “How quickly cities do this, and how well new roads facilitate ride sharing . . . will determine that future,” Laura Bliss recently wrote for CityLab in her coverage of the latest round of autonomous car announcements at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

But driverless cars are only part of the transportation plans for local agencies, which are already building out transportation networks. In November, Los Angeles voters approved a new sales tax to fund a wide array of transportation projects, including an extension of the metro system.

“No matter how many robot cars exist on the streets of L.A., they will never move people as efficiently as rail will,” said Reynolds from the L.A. Department of Transportation.

Autonomous cars are “not about technology, this about public policy,” Reynolds said. Creating systems for driverless vehicles “only becomes interesting to us . . . when we combine with another strong trend toward shared mobility,” she said.

Autonomous car networks can help the city address issues of transportation for seniors and people with disabilities, she noted. A blend of shared vehicles and driverless cars also can help shift the city’s traditional mind-set away from constructing new highways, allowing the city “to program what we have instead of building our way out of congestion,” Reynolds said.

Developing plans around autonomous vehicles will send ripples through many areas of the city, said Vince Bertoni, director of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning. A drop in the need for parking will affect how projects are developed, as well as in existing communities. “What do we do with parking spaces?” he asked. “When these no longer have economic value . . . what happens when these things go away?” Decisions about parking are “going to have great ramifications in terms of how we use land,” he said.

In Los Angeles, a reconfiguring of mobility networks will require a fundamental shift in the way the public views streets, Bertoni said. “We do things that work for us as individuals, and right now most of us are drivers,” he said. “Now, we’re going to be more passengers.” As a result, “streets are going to function very differently,” he said.

The question facing cities is: “How do we work together to create regulations that are future proofed that also enable the pace of innovation?” Uber’s Ashton said. “Autonomous cars [are] one of those points where urban planning and transportation can’t be divorced from each other anymore.”