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The Promise and Peril of Autonomous Vehicles

The possibility of self-driving cars on our roads is prompting both excitement and anxiety. Advocates point to the possibility of increased safety, lower pollution, even less congestion. Critics aren’t sold on many of the supposed advantages.

So, what happens when driverless vehicles start hitting our roads? As with so many innovations, there are likely to be pluses and minuses.

Let’s consider safety. The United States Department of Transportation estimates that roughly 95% of road accidents are caused by human mistakes; driving too fast for conditions, not paying attention to the road, or illegal maneuvers such as driving through red lights. Given human tendencies to get distracted, one would expect that autonomous vehicles will be safer.

Autonomous vehicles are outfitted with sensors and cameras, which enable them to “see” their surroundings and react to traffic and pedestrians. Companies working on these vehicles have been testing these vehicles in simulated settings as well as on real roads. There is much to tout about their safety aspects: they’re not distracted like humans, they obey speed limits and traffic signs, they don’t drive fatigued.

But driving in traffic has turned out to be more challenging than expected, and a few well-publicized accidents – one involving a Tesla and one an Uber vehicle that killed a pedestrian – have prompted concerns the self-driving technology is not ready for prime time. In particular, that sensors and cameras may not be able to react in real-time to cope with humans who behave like, well, humans.

More choices or less?

“We’re moving to a future where people don’t own cars,” says Dr. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. “You’ll have a subscription service, maybe, that emphasizes smaller vehicles, or you might want a cheaper service where it’s a van,” he adds.

Dr. Alain Kornhauser, director of the program in transportation at Princeton University, agrees to a point, saying privately owned cars are not likely to vanish completely — especially in rural areas, where getting a driverless taxi may be more challenging. Still, he says, the number of people who own cars — and the number of cars owned per family — will drop sharply.

In many cities with ridesharing services like Lyft or Uber, owning a vehicle has become less urgent. Autonomous vehicles could multiply ridesharing options.

But what if you’re in a rural area without these services? Should rural communities consider investing in self-driving vehicles as a form of public transport? What if you’re in a major city but can’t afford to either own an autonomous vehicle or even subscribe to the service?

There’s also the question of what happens to public transport as self-driving vehicles increase. Will we continue to support and improve the infrastructure for public transportation?

Public transport systems in the U.S. are not as robust as in some European nations. One of the main concerns for Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of Department of Transportation for Los Angeles, is managing access for people in different parts of Los Angeles because she understands how much that can impact one’s financial well-being.

“You can get to about 12 times as many jobs in an hour in a car as you can by transit in L.A.,” she said.

If autonomous vehicles end up reducing access, the financial and social impact could ripple across communities.

Then there is the question of what autonomous vehicles will do to people who drive for a living. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 2.5 million people earn their living from driving – employed as tractor-trailer truck drivers, taxi and delivery drivers, and as bus drivers. If those jobs disappear, that could represent a potential loss of employment equal to what we saw during the Great Recession of 2008.

Many of the people driving vehicles for a living are classified as low-skilled workers. It will be difficult for such unemployed workers to quickly find new work, and the cost of re-training them could be high.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to spur a massive and exciting paradigm shift. But there are darker clouds on the horizon too. The question is: will we be able to manage the changes wrought by self-driving vehicles in a positive way?

Copyright © 2020 Godfrey & Kahn S.C.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 30

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About this Author

Arthur J Harrington environmental law attorney godfrey & Kahn Lawn Firm
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Art is chair of the firm's Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Law Practice Group and a member of the Environmental & Energy Law Practice Group. He has a reputation for representing a diverse cross-section of clients including Fortune 500 business, municipal, land trust, tribal and state agency clients to accomplish their respective environmental and energy goals. This diverse client mix provides him with a unique perspective for achieving client goals in often complex environmental and energy engagements. Art is particularly proud of his role where he has utilized his diverse...

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