Autonomous Vehicles Aren’t Just Driverless Cars: 5 Thoughts About the Future of Autonomous Buses

by on February 13, 2018 · 0 comments

Autonomous cars have been discussed rather thoroughly recently and at this point it seems a question of when and how rather than if they will become standard. But as this issue starts to settle, new questions about the application of autonomous technology to other types of transportation are becoming ripe for policy debates. While a great deal of attention seems to be focused on the potential revolutionize the trucking and shipping industries, not as much attention has been paid to how automation may help improve both intercity and intracity bus travel or other public and private transit like trains. The recent requests for comment from the Federal Transit Authority show that policymakers are starting to consider these other modes of transit in preparing for their next recommendations for autonomous vehicles. Here are 5 issues that will need to be considered for an autonomous transit system.

  1. Establish what agency or sub-agency if any has the authority to regulate or guide development of autonomous buses.

Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has provided the most thorough guidance on autonomous vehicles, but it has focused almost exclusively on privately owned, individual transport rather than buses or trucking. Currently buses are regulated by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), NHTSA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and various agencies depending on what particular regulation is being addressed. With the growth of soft law particularly for autonomous vehicles, this overlapping jurisdiction becomes even more complicated for those hoping to start a new driverless bus system.

For example, an innovator hoping to start a driverless bus system from Washington, DC to New York City could have approval from NHTSA for the vehicles safety standards from an informal sandboxing, but find him or herself fighting the TSA after the system was ready due to the intercity travel or state regs in either location. This overlapping jurisdiction at the federal level results in further delay for innovators who may think they have properly consulted necessary agencies or are not required to seek approval.

While evasive entrepreneurs have been able to work within and around such regulations, other times they have had to engage in innovation arbitrage in order to continue such projects or stop development before its fully realized. Yes, Elon Musk might be willing to flip switch on Hyperloop with a verbal yes, but other innovators and investors are less likely to pursue costly projects that regularly face regulatory rejection.


  1. Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) may be more transformational than autonomous buses

It’s possible that at some point multi-passenger Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) may actually be more disruptive and take the place of standard buses. These devices are basically drones that can carry human passengers.

Uber, for example, has already announced its plans to test such technology in the relatively near future. Just like we may skip some levels of automation on particular technologies, we may find that we are better off skipping autonomous buses in favor of other technology altogether.


  1. State and local governments also have significant impact on buses and that’s not necessarily bad.

Right now a great deal of regulation of both autonomous vehicles and intracity transit is done at a state or local level through restrictions on operations, noise control, and local sanctioned-monopolies. Some of this is because of the increasing difficulty in creating formalized rules or legislation to address disruptive technology at a pace sufficient to keep up with innovation. As Adam Thierer, Ryan Hagemann, and I discuss in our forthcoming paper, this has led to an increased use of soft law at a federal level. It has also opened a window for state and local governments to try new policy solutions to determine what (if any) form of regulation might be best to encourage a disruptive technology like autonomous vehicles. While some economists might argue that every new government is a barrier to efficiency, allowing such local regulations is not in and of itself bad.

If the federal government were to become the new bus czar, it would not likely end well. Not only would cities and states protest the usurpation of their traditional role, but they would lack the local knowledge to determine which tradeoffs to make. Transit would best serve its citizens when they are making the decisions that most directly impact them. While the future may have less strict routes, schedules, and stops through services like Lyft Shuttle even these will require some knowledge of local needs to determine the hours and areas for the most profitable operation.

At the same time, there are real risks that a few powerful cities or states like California or New York City could prevent life-saving innovations like autonomous transit in smaller markets. This could be in a variety of ways from permitting to lane restrictions to funding. Still when examined as a national or even international market, it is likely that innovators would choose to take their technology elsewhere to a market that did exist. For example, following increased regulations related to autonomous vehicle testing in California, Uber moved its autonomous vehicle testing to a more welcome regulatory environment in Arizona. While engaging in such innovation arbitrage is not as easy for an entire transit system, states and cities that are more welcoming or at least willing to work with technological disruptors are more likely to see innovators flock to those areas as well as tangential benefits of allowing such new technology.


  1. Smart cities v. dumb choices

In general, it should be applauded that many states and cities are trying to take proactive actions to prepare for potentially transformative changes of driverless cars. However, many of these actions are dumb choices that neither prepare for the change nor promote innovation. As Emily Hamilton has written, “Self-interested incentives may lead policymakers to implement new technologies without making real changes in the quality of service delivery.”

Some of the investment in technological infrastructure has its benefits such as providing data to make infrastructure decision and increased safety and connectedness by enabling more direct communication with citizens. At the same time, many of these projects have been little more than novelties and suffer from the same cronyism issues as other government funded projects. With autonomous vehicles, cities and states may risk betting on the wrong horse and investing in technology that will later be incompatible with the most common product on the market. As Michael and Emily Hamilton have written with the gap between the proposal of legislation and its actual implementation it is easy for the “smart” technologies to be outdated by the time they actually reach citizens.

Still, there are general policy changes that can prepare cities for a smart future. Adam Thierer has written about three policy proposals (an Innovator’s Presumption, a Sunsetting Imperative, and a Parity Provision) that would enable policymakers to create cities that embraced innovation. These proposals rather than targeting specific technologies would create a regulatory environment that encourages experimentation and innovation in a variety of industries.


  1. Concerns about the impact of autonomous buses are well intentioned, but typically more about incumbents maintaining their market share.

As Michael Farren and I wrote about the collective freakout in Oregon about having to pump your own gases, often technopanics overlap with an imbedded cronyism or incumbents trying to keep out new entrants through bootleggers and Baptists phenomena.

Sadly, this phenomena is starting emerge when discussions about autonomous buses appear. Unions in some cities like Columbus, Ohio have public voiced their opposition if the jobs of current operators would be impacted. While job loss is a sad event, new technologies do not merely appear overnight and bring with them new job opportunities. Attempts by unions and other advocates to prevent any potential job losses from autonomous vehicles, could cost hundreds of thousands of lives including those of bus and truck drivers. Delaying a life-saving technology because it may negatively impact a few when it could benefit a large number in most cases is not a desirable tradeoff. Policymakers and advocates must realize that there will always be tradeoffs and recognize that often a small loss is necessary for a larger gain.

Technology does not just destroy jobs, it also creates them. A 2015 Deloitte study found that in the 140 years since the industrial revolution new technology had created more jobs than it had destroyed and not just in areas directly related to the technology. As individuals had more free time because technology made things like agriculture and manufacturing easier, significant growth was experienced not only in jobs related directly to technology, but also service and creative industries. While cars may have unemployed blacksmiths, they provided new opportunities for many others by creating and expanding new industries. It is likely that the current disruptive technologies will do the same.



As both the technology and policy surrounding autonomous vehicles evolves these and many other issues will have to be discussed and decided. It is a welcome event that such conversations are beginning to embrace the broader applications of the technology rather than solely focusing on “driverless cars” and hopefully this expanded focus will allow for even greater innovation and benefits.

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