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Watts: Autonomous Vehicles

Glenn Russell
For a recent project, Transportation Researcher Richard Watts counted cars at the U-Heights and Main Street Intersection in Burlington.

One of the most important bills that passed this session - S-149 – is probably one you never heard of. It's the new law that sets out guidelines for testing autonomous or driverless vehicles.A raft of giant companies from Google to Tesla, are developing driverless vehicles for the country's enormous automobile market. Experts put their adoption within five to ten years. And as someone with direct experience as a transportation researcher and regular bike and bus commuter, I'd say the impacts are going to be major - because driverless cars will almost certainly mean more vehicles on our roads.

Uber and Lyft offer an instructive lesson. Originally presented as a concept that would reduce car ownership and total vehicle trips, the ride hailing services have had an opposite and devastating effect. Research shows these services have reduced walking and biking and cannibalized public transit. Vehicle miles traveled have increased more than three percent in the nine cities where Uber and Lyft are most active – as people who used to walk, bike or ride public transit now simply ride.

Here in Vermont, planners modeled the impact of the wide-spread use of driverless vehicles on our roads – and the results are also devastating. The model shows sharp increases in car trip numbers and total miles driven.

One eerie but likely scenario is leaving your car to circle while you run errands.

But it all starts with testing, and here we can, in fact, do something to get out ahead of this coming tsunami. In setting parameters for testing driverless vehicles, S-149 requires regulatory oversight and town buy-in before the vehicles appear on our roads. And we can use those tests to develop some Vermont goals now – before it's too late. One thought is to consider pricing mechanisms that require shared use – which might actually increase mobility options for Vermonters in our rural towns and places.

Planning is the guidance of future action. And proactive planning should enable us to create a future with better mobility choices for Vermonters - without overwhelming our small towns and highways with yet more motorized vehicles.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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