UD researchers consider potential impact of autonomous vehicles

With the demand for self-driving vehicle technology accelerating among automakers and ridesharing businesses, policymakers nationwide have started planning for what many see as a transportation revolution.

In Delaware, the state Department of Transportation (DelDOT) asked researchers in the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration (IPA) to examine what might happen when — in the not-so-distant future — vehicles are likely to travel the state’s roadways without a human at the wheel.

“We’re a car culture in the United States, and autonomous vehicles [AVs] represent a very big change,” said Philip Barnes, associate policy scientist in the IPA who conducted the research with doctoral student Eli Turkel, an IPA graduate fellow. “The old ways of doing things are going to change, and policies are going to have to change, too.”

But, he said, those transportation policy changes won’t be defined until planners know more about the impact AVs will have. That’s the question Barnes and Turkel addressed in the 35-page report they recently completed for DelDOT.

The issues examined in the report include such topics as roadway safety, traffic congestion, jobs and the economy, revenue for state and local governments and residential development patterns.

“We can expect a lot of benefits from the use of AVs, but there are a lot of challenges and potential negative impacts, too,” Barnes said.

In the report, he points out that Ford has said it will be selling AVs in the next five years and that most analysts expect modest sales of such vehicles by the late 2020s. Those same analysts predict “widespread adoption” of the technology through the 2030s and ’40s.

In exploring the effects of what the report calls “the impending autonomous vehicle revolution” in Delaware, highway safety tops most observers’ list of potential benefits. With a recent average of about 100 traffic fatalities annually in Delaware, the state could reasonably expect widespread use of AVs to save a significant number of lives each year, as the vehicles’ guidance systems recognize the need to slow down, stop or change lanes in time to avoid accidents.

That same technology will mean a decrease in congestion, Barnes said, with traffic flowing easily around lane closures and other obstacles and merging smoothly without the usual stop-and-go pattern that human drivers follow.

Predictions are that AV passengers will have faster and more productive commutes to work — with time behind the wheel replaced by time to read, work or nap in the passenger seat. That’s a positive impact, Barnes said, but urban planners wonder if the long-term effect will be increased suburban sprawl as commuting becomes less unpleasant and workers are willing to move farther from their job sites.

For another group, individuals with disabilities that prevent or restrict their own driving, AVs will mean being able to own a car and travel independently.

Barnes noted that this very independence raises more policy questions: Will the state still need to issue driver’s licenses? If not, will there be an age limit for riding in an AV, or will 10-year-olds be able to take themselves to soccer practice? And will the cost of buying a new AV create a two-tiered system where lower-income people won’t share in the immediate benefits?

Another policy issue addressed in the report is the revenue that governments now receive from fines paid for traffic violations, a source of income that could virtually disappear with no drivers to break the law. The insurance industry also needs to consider how to adjust to a future with few traffic accidents other than those potentially caused by a technology failure, Barnes said.

In Delaware, the report notes, DelDOT has implemented technological and infrastructure improvements that position the state well in preparing for testing, operation and deployment of AVs.

“If action is taken now, Delaware could position itself to be a leader in the autonomous vehicle area,” the report concludes, recommending an accelerated pace of planning and coordination among state agencies.

A copy of the report is available here.

About the Institute for Public Administration

Established in 1973, the institute is now part of the School of Public Policy and Administration in UD’s College of Arts and Sciences.

IPA works with numerous partners to address their policy, planning and management needs through the integration of applied research, professional development and the education of tomorrow’s leaders. It provides direct staff assistance, research, policy analysis, training and forums while contributing to the scholarly body of knowledge in public administration.

IPA leads programs including The Democracy Project and the Legislative Fellows program and is involved in such policy areas as education, health, transportation, local government training, planning and economic development.