Now’s the Time for California to Start Planning for Self-Driving Cars

August 16, 2019 | 9:13 am
Photo: Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious/Flickr
Don Anair
Deputy Director & Research Director, Clean Transportation

Traffic. I’m not a big fan. I’m lucky enough to have commuted to work by bike and BART for the last 15 years and avoided countless hours in gridlock. But last week, faced with the tricky summer camp logistics that comes with being a parent of two children, I had no choice but to drive. And I was reminded just how soul sucking bad traffic can be. By the end of the week I was exhausted.

Imagine if traffic gets even worse? Uber and Lyft are already being implicated in the rise of congestion in San Francisco and other cities.  Add self-driving cars in the coming few years to the mix and things could look even worse. But it doesn’t have to turn out that way.

As I noted in my last blog post, automated vehicles (AVs) could be an integral part of a future multi-modal transportation system. For example, AVs could facilitate connections to high quality mass transit, increase sharing of rides, and accelerate a transition to electric vehicles. But ensuring self-driving cars improve our transportation system will take thoughtful policy from local, state, and federal decision makers. Without it we are likely to end up with more traffic clogging our streets, and we will fail to cut transportation pollution anywhere close to what we need to. Plus, the last thing we need are more cars on the road emitting carbon and making the climate crisis worse.

California is not prepared for self-driving cars

California’s known for being a pioneer in transportation innovation. Everything from the invention of freeways (for better or worse!) to kick-starting  the EV revolution.  So California must be prepared for AVs. Right?

Wrong. So far, the state’s primary actions on AVs have been led by the DMV. They’ve focused on the rules of the road for AVs including requirements for companies seeking permits to test the vehicles on public roads.  But they aren’t taking into account climate pollution or a whole host of other issues that come up with AV deployment, from impacts to workers and economic development issues, to congestion and infrastructure needs.  The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, as part of a multi-agency work group, has helped organize a set of helpful principles around AV deployment which is a good start, but turning these principles into actions is a critical next step.

California has the opportunity to start planning ahead before this technology is commonplace on our streets and Senate Bill 59, introduced by Senator Ben Allen, would do just that.

What does SB 59 do?

SB 59 creates the California Council on the Future of Transportation. The title is a bit grandiose perhaps, but if created, could profoundly influence the future of transportation in California.  The Council is charged with recommending policies to the Governor and legislature to maximize the benefits of a self-driving future.  Currently, there are piecemeal approaches, with different cities trying different things and very little guidance on the broad ranges of issues and interests involved. SB 59 can bring all these pieces together and catalyze the statewide innovative, multi-stakeholder thinking we need to maximize the benefits of new technologies while addressing these challenges.

To cover the wide range of issues related to transportation and deployment of self-driving cars, the committee would bring together a diverse mix of stakeholders. Committee members would come from both industry and public interest groups as well as local and state government agencies.  These range from representatives from labor organizations, research institutions, disability rights and pedestrian safety groups, health and science organizations, and environmental justice advocates.  Technology companies, automakers, and motorists would also be represented. State and local agency representation would span local transit agency representation to state department of transportation, DMV Air Resources Board, Workforce Development, Office of Business and Economic Development and more.

The issues raised by self-driving cars are many and the committee is charged with reporting back to the legislature on several topics with its first report due by January 2022, and subsequent reports due every two years thereafter. The topics include, but are not limited to, road safety, infrastructure improvements, reducing congestion and vehicle miles traveled, furthering the state’s environmental, public health and energy goals, labor and economic impacts, accessibility and insurance.

Will self driving cars be climate heroes?

Importantly, the legislation requires establishing subcommittees to delve into specific issue areas.  With such a broad group of stakeholders and issues to cover, this is a critical component to ensure progress is made.

The bill would establish a subcommittee to examine the health and sustainability issues related to self-driving vehicles and would be guided by the Automated Vehicle Principles for Healthy and Sustainable Communities formerly released by a multi-agency working group.  These principles, similar to policy principles UCS previously developed, importantly call out the need for self-driving cars to be shared and electric, to support highly quality transit and active transportation (walking and biking), and to improve livability. They also call for improving transportation equity by ensuring that self-driving cars increase access to mobility for communities and individuals currently lacking affordable transportation options. Our recent report, Where are Self-driving Cars Taking Us?,  highlights the importance of proactive policy to achieve this outcome, otherwise self-driving cars could end up exacerbating pollution and congestion in communities already overburdened.

What kind of recommendations might the committee come up with to address climate emissions related to AV deployment? Road pricing to encourage pooling of rides, investments to improve or expand mass transit systems, setting limits on private vehicle use when no passengers are present, and incentives or requirements for electric drive are the types of policy ideas that should be explored by the committee amongst others. Many of these solutions aren’t unique to AVs, but become even more critical as AVs hit the road.

Now’s the right time to prepare for self-driving cars

A Waymo self-driving vehicle in Mountain View CA.

We are already seeing the negative impacts of Uber and Lyft on congestion and public transit in urban centers. A recent analysis, released by Uber and Lyft, found 13 percent of all vehicle travel in San Francisco is from Uber and Lyft and that about 45 percent of travel was without any passengers. Self-driving cars are likely to be deployed in similar services and exacerbate these problems.

Self-driving cars are already on the road in California, shuttling employees at companies like Google and Cruise, and it may take a few years or more before they substantially replace regular cars. Even if the technology takes longer than expected to mature (as some are now thinking), interest in the technology does not appear to be waning.  When I checked how many technology and auto companies were registered to test self-driving cars earlier this year, I estimated about 40 companies registered.  The list is now over 60 and that’s only in California. The longer timeline for AV deployment provides a window of opportunity for policymakers and they should take advantage of it.

The California Legislature should pass SB 59

Transportation emissions are the largest source of climate emissions in CA and they’ve continued to grow despite our best efforts.  We can’t afford to take a wait and see approach with AVs. SB 59 is an important step in creating the level of coordination necessary to realize the promise of emerging self-driving cars and avert outcomes we want to avoid. It ensures state and regional decision-makers, state transportation officials and other stakeholders have a forum to coordinate on various aspects of AV deployment before it’s too late.