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Autonomous vehicles could get broad bipartisan support

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A former NHTSA administrator and head of a self-driving coalition is optimistic about the next four years

Uber’s self-driving pilot program in Pittsburgh

David L. Strickland understands the government regulation of vehicles more than anyone. As the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during the Obama years, he oversaw major changes to the way the government pushed for more nimble technological solutions to make cars safer, cleaner, and more connected. He thinks autonomous vehicles (AVs) are about to usher in a major breakthrough for our society—no matter who’s in the White House.

As the counsel and spokesperson of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets—a group that includes five of the autonomous world’s most influential players: Google, Uber, Lyft, Volvo, and Ford—Strickland is now the most important lobbyist for an industry that was a few policy recommendations away from radically changing the way we live. Until, that is, the 2016 presidential election, which ushered in an age of uncertainty around the country’s transportation policies.

I met Strickland at Los Angeles’ auto show—a celebration of car culture in the birthplace of car culture—which has ended up becoming the most forward-thinking auto show in the U.S. Over the last few years, the show has added special emphasis on low-emission and shared vehicles, recently rebranding the entire show as AutoMobility LA to acknowledge its increasingly nontraditional mobility solutions.

It was worrying to many in attendance that after all this progress, our new presidential leadership was almost certainly destined to throw the industry backwards into the dark ages of single-passenger vehicles and fossil-fuel consumption.

But Strickland was far more optimistic. It comes down to safety and pushing for better solutions to achieve safety, he said, which he had championed in his role at NHTSA and continued to focus on at the self-driving coalition. He was bullish on the fact that the industry was still moving forward.

Saving lives is not a partisan issue

Almost 40,000 Americans die in car crashes each year, over 90 percent of which are caused by human error. This is a crisis that touches every single American, in every congressional district, in every state. “There are no Democratic or Republican roads,” says Strickland.

Volvo, a coalition member, has been hyperfocused on using AV tech to save lives

Another encouraging fact is that the Secretary of Transportation position, historically, has not been determined by party affiliation. “If the president wants to make a bipartisan pick, DOT is usually where it happens,” says Strickland. Ray LaHood, for example, was a Republican representative from Illinois appointed by Obama to head the DOT before Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Perhaps more importantly, the leading advocates for autonomous vehicles in Congress are still in office. “Everyone that we’ve worked with, we didn't lose anyone,” says Strickland. And he’s looking forward to working with incoming members who are focused on energy and commerce issues, namely to help make the connection for how AVs can help the country decrease emissions while boosting the economy.

Obama’s AV policy was more “guidance” than regulation

The new autonomous vehicle rules put forth by President Obama earlier this year had one very important quality that might prevent them from getting scrapped, says Strickland—they’re just suggestions. Unlike the Clean Power Plan, the United Nations climate treaty, or universal healthcare, the AV rules were not an executive order, and therefore not on the President-elect’s hit-list of Obama policies to undo in his first days in office.

AP Driverless Car
Google’s self-driving cars got a big boost by Obama’s recommendations
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

Additionally, Republicans have a tendency to vote for policy that puts the federal government in a more hands-off position, which means that any additional regulations, especially ones for technology that hasn’t been deployed yet, will likely not be passed immediately. “The fact that it’s guidance should help more in stability and transition,” says Strickland. “It probably has more of a chance surviving in a Trump administration.”

There’s also the fact that the guidelines really do rely on the actions of automakers—which means lots of opportunities for new jobs, he says. “Having this lesser regulatory approach really leans on the private sector for how we get this deployed thoughtfully and safely.”

Autonomous vehicles won’t take jobs—they’ll create new ones

One tweet that kept surfacing in my feed after the election was a map that compared the states that voted for Trump with the states where “truck driver” was the most popular occupation—it was almost exactly the same map.

I asked Strickland how the coalition responded to worries that autonomous trucking would obliterate jobs in rural America, and his answer surprised me.

Self-driving trucks like Uber’s Otto will change the trucking industry
Courtesy of Otto

“We’re actually 50,000 drivers short,” says Strickland, noting that trucking companies have been desperate to hire more employees. “I think autonomous trucks will actually help us close that gap, in the short term.”

But we shouldn’t be worried about eventually putting truckers out of jobs, and ATMs are the perfect example, he says. Everyone thought an “automated teller” would put human tellers out of jobs, when in fact, it freed bank workers from spending their days on mundane tasks like cashing checks so they could focus on providing new, expanded services to clients. “Whenever you have new technology you always find jobs that are lost which are gained in another part of the industry.”

He also points to how AVs could actually give more Americans access to jobs—namely seniors and people with disabilities—which would bolster the economy in many communities. “We see this as a growth opportunity in so many industries.”

Infrastructure investment could mean something good

Strickland was one of the drafters of a comprehensive Federal Highway Administration bill in 2005 which attempted to modernize the country’s transportation system with a focus on safety, equity, and environmental stewardship. He thinks another transportation bill is, in general, a very good idea. “Investing in infrastructure is the most important thing we can do as far as building for our economic future,” he says. “We are living off the investment from the 1950s in the Eisenhower administration and we’ve been patching it ever since.”

How that kind of investment will impact self-driving could also be huge. “If we get a highway bill, we do have a platform and opportunity to think about self-driving as a pure ecosystem,” he says.

Autonomous Parking Lot Two
New AV-ready parking garages could be funded by an infrastructure bill
Arrowstreet Inc.

But it isn’t just about resurfacing highways and better lane paint, he notes, it’s also about urban planning decisions that can incentivize the use of self-driving tech—carpool lanes, congestion charging, and removing parking lots from dense neighborhoods. And if you’re resculpting cities for AVs, that money could all come from an infrastructure bill. “If cities want to do zones for deployment, for example, this is a fabulous opportunity.”

AVs could help bridge the rural vs. urban divide

Another major topic of conversation post-election has been how rural communities have been left behind by policies that favor big cities. Obviously autonomous vehicles have been championed by big, dense cities which see them as a panacea for gridlock. But what about people who don’t live in those cities. And what about people who love to drive?

Autonomous shuttles could help people get around inside and outside of cities

Widespread self-driving adoption is not right for every city, agrees Strickland, but in a big-picture way, we have to think of it like investments in high-speed rail or a better interstate system. “If we invest in it as a country, we lift up a number of a communities across the country.”

Plus, he sees a myriad of benefits for people who live outside of cities. “Even someone driving a Ford F-150 can flip on self-driving mode on the way back to the ranch and take care of other things,” says Strickland. That turns the argument for self-driving vehicles into a productivity argument. It doesn’t matter your background; AVs can help get Americans back hundreds of hours per year lost to driving and sitting in traffic.

Cities will start to think about AVs like bike share

When Strickland was NHTSA administrator over a decade ago, he focused on building livable communities. “How we can figure out a way to get people to use less energy by planning and building communities where people work, workshop, entertain themselves—all in a more compact space,” he remembers.

His team looked at Paris’s successful bike share and began recommending bike share as a good way to achieve more livable cities. And something incredible happened.

“Those places that got bike share, all of a sudden they had almost a quadrupling of economic impact,” he says. “All of a sudden every city mayor was calling us up and saying ‘We gotta get that bike share!’”

Electric vehicle charging station
Shared, electric, autonomous vehicles could help remake cities like bike share did

Self-driving tech brings a lot of the same opportunities as bike share, says Strickland. “They were an engine for growth that also fulfilled the mission for a more livable city.” This is another reason that self-driving tech might likely be embraced by the masses—it all comes back to boosting the economy.

2017 is going to be a big year for self-driving cars no matter what

Looking forward, the big theme for next year is for the coalition to start to sell their idea to the public. “People are concerned about safety but they don't put safety as their number one priority,” says Strickland. That’s why self-driving companies are hyperfocused on putting their projects out in public. “How they sell it is all dependent on consumer acceptance,” says Strickland. “It’s about getting people in the vehicles.”

That’s why advocates are focusing on the work that Uber is doing in Pittsburgh, and Local Motors with its minibus Olli, and a new autonomous shuttle service that was just approved in Northern California—these are the opportunities that will start to introduce all Americans to the possibilities and benefits of self-driving tech.

While these public deployments will happen no matter who is in the White House, says Strickland, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that President Trump’s legacy might be delivering the needed autonomous vehicle infrastructure to the country. “If he wants to call himself a ‘builder,’ it’s a natural place to go.”