Daniel Comeaux is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
I have been working as a Research Assistant on the Autonomous Vehicles Policy Initiative at HKS since January. But that work took on a whole new meaning over the last few weeks, when I and a team of my peers were given a real-world task. As part of the MPP program’s “Spring Policy Exercise,” we were asked to help the City of Buenos Aires prepare for the potential arrival of autonomous vehicles.
We had eleven days from being given our topic — reducing competition between autonomous vehicles and transit in Buenos Aires — to delivering our final recommendations. So we had to work quickly! While I came to the team with some relevant issue background, my teammates also had crucial knowledge and skills to contribute, ranging from economic analysis to graphic design to speaking Spanish. That last one was in many ways more important than any prior knowledge about autonomous vehicles, because the ultimate key to delivering useful recommendations was that we understood the local context. And most of that context was not easily available in English.
Over those eleven days, we became much more familiar with Buenos Aires’ mobility landscape, including its diverse and well-used collection of subways, BRT, commuter trains, minibuses, private cars, taxis, for-hire vehicles, bike-share, and more. We learned about the fragmented and complex governmental structure of the city, province, and nation, and worked to develop an understanding of the political dynamics at play. We built up a factbase of relevant comparisons, both in Latin American and in other cities around the world. Leveraging all of that and more, we created a set of actionable, detailed recommendations for Constanza Movsichoff — our client and the City of Buenos Aires’ leader on AV issues — to consider.
I wanted to share a few thoughts inspired by the exercise.
First, while knowledge about AVs was helpful in developing recommendations, it isn’t enough on its own. Taking the concept of “preventing competition between AVs and transit” from a broad idea to specific recommendations requires knowing something about the system already in place. For example, a solution that might be feasible in a high density, high public transit-usage city like Buenos Aires may well not be applicable in many lower-density North American cities. It also requires understanding the politics. Some city leaders may have both the power, and the flexibility, to act in the face of new technologies. Others may be preempted by provincial or national officials. The right recommendation must reflect these realities.
Second, it seems likely that the relationship between AV companies and some cities will be as contentious as has been the case today between cities and Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft. Buenos Aires has banned Uber outright, but the company continues to operate within the city. If AV services operate similarly to today’s TNCs, those confrontations could grow, particularly in tandem with increasing consumer demand if AVs are even cheaper, safer, and more convenient than they are today.
Finally, because the trajectory of AV development and deployment remains uncertain, it will be important for governments to set principle-based policies, as opposed to preemptively picking specific technologies as “winners,” and to try to select policies that could be effective in any future scenario. For instance, whether AVs are deployed in fleets vs. predominantly privately owned has significant implications for their potential impact on the mobility system. In either case, though, urban leaders will likely want to ensure these vehicles do not add to overall levels of congestion and sprawl. And as those scenarios do unfold, governments must be willing to experiment, to refine, and to change course if a policy does not work as planned.
Reflections on Developing AV Policy for Buenos Aires 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.