Study: City leaders must plan for driverless future or ‘face major risks’

The cars with the odd spinning tops draw fewer full-stop stares from Pittsburghers anymore.

But imagine entire fleets of driverless vehicles winding through Downtown or plugging along the Parkway East, zipping commuters, shoppers, students and everyone else to their destinations.

City leaders everywhere should plan for such a day, according to a study released Monday.

The coming age of driverless, autonomous vehicles “will force cities to confront a host of uncertainties on issues ranging from safety, ethics, insurance, and regulatory requirements” among other considerations, according to “Driverless Future: A Policy Roadmap for City Leaders.”

The study is the work of experts in transportation, economics and urban planning from Colorado-based Arcadis engineering consultants, Sam Schwartz transportation consultants of New York City, and HR&A public policy consultants, also with offices in New York City.

The 23-page report, available online at, offers sunny forecasts on some fronts, predicting greater mobility, more parking and millions fewer cars as more people opt for ride-share carpooling services and ride-sourcing services such as Uber, Lyft and traditional taxis.

But it also warns city leaders of dangers if they don’t plan for such a future.

“Left unregulated, the popularity and affordability of driverless cars may have the opposite effect for cities by increasing congestion, encouraging sprawl and exacerbating growing inequalities,” said Peter Glus of Arcadis in a statement.

“Additionally, public agencies may face lower transit ridership, resulting in lost revenues from transit tickets, parking fees, traffic fines, and other once-reliable revenue sources.”

The rise of autonomous vehicles could also lead to greater unemployment among professional drivers while those with limited access to technology may not be able to take advantage of the services.

Pittsburgh would seem to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to driverless technology and planning.

Carnegie Mellon University and General Motors first established a collaborative research laboratory in 2000, with a second $5 million partnership announced in 2008 to develop the technologies that would power future autonomous vehicles.

Just last month, Ford said it would invest $1 billion over five years in Pittsburgh-based Argo AI to develop a virtual driver system for self-driving vehicles.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration now includes a Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, with a stated mission of providing “a safe, sustainable, and efficient system to transportation and accessibility,” and an eye toward integrating new technologies into transportation initiatives.

“We’ve been preparing for the way driverless vehicles and other new technologies are going to be affecting Pittsburgh,” said Alex Pazuchanics, the city’s policy coordinator.

“The adoption rate is going to depend on a number of factors: rate of technology improvements, regulations at the state and federal level, and cultural comfort with the sharing economy and robotic vehicles. We’re trying to make the investments that are most ‘future proof’ and could work in a number of different scenarios, and our new department is a big part of that.”

A local transit official voices similar optimism.

“Port Authority views changes in the transit landscape as new opportunities, especially since we know customers who may use a service provided by these technologies are also likely to use public transportation,” Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said in an email.

Noting the Port Authority’s recent technology improvements, such as smart card fare payment, real-time bus tracking and touch-screen customer kiosks, Mr. Ritchie said, “We’ll continue pursuing enhancements that make transit simple, reliable and customer-focused.”

The study’s authors offer a range of recommendations for city leaders, including leveraging technology to enhance mobility, modernizing public transit and encouraging equal access to jobs and services.

They also call widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles “likely” within the next 15-20 years.

“In the face of this, city leaders — together with transit agencies, private operators, developers, other stakeholders, and the public at large — have an obligation to define new policies that protect against risks while seizing new opportunities.”

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