A Warning Shot for AV Policy Action

By | August 7, 2018

By Mark Fagan, Harvard Kennedy School

Not only cars will be a factor in the city of the future

Cambridge citizens and city officials awoke last week to find electric scooters distributed in the city. No warning, no permission, it just happened. “The city does not have any kind of contract or agreement with Bird Scooters and is not aware of the rollout program” according to a Cambridge spokesperson. Cambridge is not the first city to wake up to a “scooter surprise”: Since September 2017 the “Scooter wars”, as they have been named by news outlets like Recode, are underway in cities all across the U.S., including Washington D.C., San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose and Austin. They are causing policymakers headaches, and foreshadow what is ahead for Autonomous Vehicles.

What do the scooter wars have to do with AVs? Take note of their implementation strategy. The approach of “place first and ask after” in the Scooter wars is reminiscent of how the transportation network companies (TNCs) launched their businesses. When Uber, Lyft, and others first started their services, city officials in numerous communities found themselves on the defensive with the TNCs regarding driver and vehicle safety regulations and many operational considerations such as where the TNCs can queue while waiting for their passengers, and where riders can be picked up and dropped off without causing major disruption or even dangerous situations in key traffic areas.

With the TNCs, the proverbial horse is long out the barn. Some cities have come to mitigation agreements with the TNCs on operational questions, but the bottom line is that policymakers were caught unaware and unprepared, which puts the city in a weak position vis-à-vis the TNCs. Many city officials are having a TNC dejavu when it comes to the way in which scooters are being dropped in like an uninvited dinner guest.

The storm of the “Scooter wars” will pass, just like the TNC disruption has passed by. AVs, however, are another story. The disruption from AVs is likely to be much more substantial. Cities and states need to move into the driver seat now to set the right course for their constituents. That is why learning from both the scooter wars and the rapid and irrevocable TNC implementation is essential for city and state policymakers. They can avoid being on the defensive once again by acting now on AVs. While AV arrival could be years or even decades away, three reasons should motivate action now, drawing on the lessons of the TNC and scooter surprises.

1. Business models for AV deployment are being developed by the private sector right now. Their plans reflect the regulatory environment they assume will be in place. Policymaker involvement now enables the public’s view to be incorporated into the plans. At this stage business plans are still malleable; once cast they are much hard to change, as we have seen with the TNCs.

2. The political capital to place regulations on deployment and use of AVs is less now than once they are here. We learned from the TNCs that once the service is in place, it is very difficult to introduce regulation. Post-deployment regulation is possible, but it comes at a high political cost. With the scooters, we see this happening again using almost exactly the same playbook, this time, however, the mobility startups have learned to leverage news commentators and to put additional pressure on city officials. With AVs, city and state officials ought to be prepared and ahead of that. Spend political capital on regulation now.

3. Policy development takes time. Think about the last major policy issues that was addressed. How long did it take? For many policies that impact a wide swath of the citizenry, as AVs do, the process can literarily take years. But in contrast to the TNCs and scooter wars, we know now that AVs are coming and we still have those years to go through a policy-guided process. Starting now will change the game for policymakers and citizens on AVs.

If you have begun the AV policy development process, keep pushing. If you have not, get started by leveraging the work of others. Take a look at cities and states/provinces in the North America from Boston to Pittsburgh to California to Toronto that are gaining a grasp on AV policy. Also, learn from federal governments in Europe. Germany, for instance, has a robust put regulatory structure in place. And of course, study the TNC and scooter war playbook.

The bottom line: Don’t wake up to AVs on the street as we did to scooters. Start your policy work now. Remember the adage — a good offense is always the best defense.


A Warning Shot for AV Policy Action was originally published in Harvard Kennedy School Autonomous Vehicles Policy Initiative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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