The discussion of automated and autonomous vehicles is not new, but it has recently drawn national attention as automakers announce bold targets to fully automate their vehicles, federal agencies begin crafting regulations, Congress considers legislation to oversee the safe testing and deployment of emerging technologies, and innovative business models and partnerships materialize.
Over the last few years, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) has sought information from stakeholders and published proposals related to the oversight of automated and autonomous vehicles. Automated and autonomous vehicles will forever change transportation on a local level and national scale; the time is ripe for public transit agencies and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to be more visible in shaping the outcome of these discussions, regulations, and laws.
Public transit agencies should have a critical, and for practical purposes, a compulsory voice in this conversation — dictated by self-preservation and an effort to safeguard its control in applying proven technologies to their fleets. These technologies hold the promise of enhanced safety, lower transit operating costs, improved traffic congestion, and facilitate public-private partnerships to fund such endeavors. Yet, the transit industry has a considerable challenge ahead to position itself to influence the legislative and regulatory process; simultaneously, leveraging technologies and adapting to the unavoidable changes that follow their adoption.
Few agencies have begun to test and deploy automated or autonomous bus transit in revenue service on fixed routes. Public transit agencies should consider engaging in activities that help define the roles transit can take in automating fleets and partnering with private entities to deploy autonomous vehicle technologies. One way this is accomplished is by partnering with local research universities, OEMs, and established transportation network companies using automated or autonomous technology for first-mile/last-mile solutions. Public transit agencies’ involvement in the development of automated and autonomous vehicles, through their own investments, public-public partnerships, or public-private partnerships will enable the industry to understand the requirements and effects of the technology and better prepare its transit systems for adoption in the future.
One possible reason as to why few public transit agencies have pursued such pilots and partnerships is the lack of legal and regulatory clarity, which has created an environment of uncertainty for many, including automakers, software companies, OEMs, and naturally, public transit leadership. The deliberately unhurried regulatory landscape makes such arrangements challenging; however, it offers an opportunity for stakeholders to provide their unique perspective and shape the regulatory outcome. In addition to providing public transit’s voice throughout the process, agencies should consider advocating for an adaptive regulatory approach.
Though desirable to cure the uncertainty public transit agencies face, early regulatory action carries its own problems. Rules, regulations, and federal agency guidance, once established, needs to adapt to the advent of new technologies and business models. Given the rapid advancements in technology, federal regulators should implement an adaptive regulatory process by which the government maintains a consistent review of its policies, guidance, and rules, as the technology matures. Federal regulations have the potential to codify idealistic expectations, resulting in antiquated requirements that insulate the favored regulatory outcome from being flexible towards future technologies and accompanying issues of integrating those technologies into the real operating environment.
Public transit agencies ought to encourage a regulatory model that would adapt existing and developing rules as much as possible. This touches on a number of issue areas related to automated and autonomous buses; including, Buy America compliance, mass transit employee protections, infrastructure, cybersecurity, insurance and liability, handling of data, inspection requirements, and vehicle operation. Transit agencies and federal regulators need to understand the current and potential future landscape of automated and autonomous public transit and should refrain from establishing regulations that inhibit the development of technology or discourage its innovative applications. To be successful, the regulator and regulated entities must view each other as equal partners in advancing to a new level of mobility service.
The current evolving regulatory framework regarding the testing and deployment of automated and autonomous vehicles is being driven at the state level. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, in 2017, 33 states introduced legislation related to autonomous vehicles. The public transportation industry needs to be continuously and fervently engaged at all levels of government. With so much change occurring, it can be tempting to sit back and wait for the puzzle to take shape; however, public transit agencies should be involved with the policy and regulatory changes as they unfold.
Bennett E. Resnik is Assistant Counsel and Manager of Government Relations for Cardinal Infrastructure LLC. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cardinal Infrastructure LLC or its clients.