Autonomous vehicles may be on Mass. roads soon

  • In this Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, file photo, an autonomous vehicle, operated by nuTonomy, is driven during its test drive in Singapore. Transportation planners in Massachusetts are preparing for the day that autonomous cars are on Bay State roads. AP photo

Boston University Statehouse Program
Published: 2/15/2018 11:32:49 PM

BOSTON — Experts made one thing clear at a Statehouse briefing on autonomous vehicles Thursday. While the estimated time of arrival varies, autonomous vehicles are on the road to Massachusetts — and policymakers are trying to figure out how to make the best of it and prevent the worst.

Concerns about autonomous vehicles include safety, increased traffic congestion, the economic impacts of a world without drivers and the changing role of municipal planning.

Autonomous vehicles won’t, and shouldn’t, replace other forms of transportation like walking and cycling, the experts said. Rather, the optimistic view shows a future in which vehicular infrastructure will need a smaller footprint, leaving more public space for uses including expanded walking and biking paths.

Traffic congestion could be eased, there could be more equitable access to transportation and vehicular carbon emissions could be drastically reduced, the experts said. While they suggested that future is possible, they also emphasized that planning ahead is crucial to making it happen. And failing to do so could come at high costs.

“If you want one fact on transportation, it’s this: U.S. News & World report ranked us the No. 1 state in the country across all categories, including being No. 1 in education and No. 2 in health care. We were No. 45 in transportation. We have a lot of work to do,” said Chris Dempsey, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts.

One major concern is the limited ability to gather data on self-driving cars to assist policy and planning at both the municipal and state level, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Alison Felix. Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft are seen as prototypes for how autonomous cars will be used. A user could hail a self-driving car with an app on their phone, get dropped off at their destination and let the car go somewhere else until they need another ride.

Researchers at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council conducted a survey of 1,000 ride-sharing users in an attempt to improve the limited understanding of the effects of autonomous vehicles on traffic and infrastructure.

The survey revealed such services actually increase the number of cars on the road as 42 percent of ride-sharing users said they would have otherwise taken public transportation. “Overall, 15 percent of ride-hailing trips are adding cars to the region’s roadways during the morning or afternoon rush hours,” according to the report.

Aside from the impact on people trying to get from place to place, experts predicted economic and fiscal impacts on the state and local level.

Preparing for self-driving cars requires investment in infrastructure improvements like repairing roads, improving street signs and traffic signals, and increased attention to snow removal, according to Felix. At the same time, current sources of revenue that come from parking and traffic violations, highway tolls, and the gas and excise taxes will become less lucrative.

Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, reported that Boston could see a 27 percent loss of car-related revenue if only 20 percent of cars in the market are autonomous. For rural and suburban areas, the impact on revenue isn’t expected to be as large, but Mares’ reported projection was still between 3-16 percent.

Another concern, according to Felix, was that a proliferation of self-driving vehicles could lead to “Sprawl 2.0” as people become less reliant on public transit lines.

Additionally, people who make money by driving could lose their source of income.

But experts say it’s not all bad. Self-driving cars have the potential to decrease traffic accidents, reduce the amount of parking space needed, and provide easier access to transportation for those who can’t drive. And the time that people do spend in traffic can be spent working or relaxing, rather than focusing on the road.

To pave the way to a future with the benefits autonomous cars and limited consequences of them, Mares left listeners with a few recommendations: Set limits on cars driving without passengers; encourage makers to produce electric, rather than gas powered, vehicles; find alternative sources of revenue; and create training programs to help drivers find new livelihoods.

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