Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Five questions cities should ask when robotaxis come to town

If your city is getting robotaxis, here are five questions you should be asking yourself if you are in local government or an advocate for local stakeholders. Some of the answers to these questions might not be easy if you are operating under a state-imposed municipal preemption clause, which is quite common. But you should at least think through the situations up front instead of having to react later in crisis mode.

(There might well be benefits to your city. But the robotaxi companies will be plastering them over as much media as they can, so there is no real need to repeat them here. Instead, we're going to consider things that will matter if the rollout does not go ideally, informed by lessons San Francisco has learned the hard way.)

Local citizens have questions for the robotaxi / Dall-E 2

(1) How will you know that robotaxis are causing a disruption?

In San Francisco there has been a lot of concern about disruption of fire trucks, emergency response scenes, blocked traffic, and so on. The traffic blockages show up pretty quickly in other cities as well. While companies say "stopping the robotaxi is for safety" that is only half the story. A robotaxi that stays stopped for tens of minutes causes other safety issues, such as blocking emergency responders, as well as disrupts traffic flow.

How will you know this is happening? Do you plan to proactively collect data from emergency responders and traffic monitoring? Or wait for twitter blow-ups and irate citizens to start coning cars? What is your plan if companies cause excessive disruption?

(2) How will you share data with companies that they should be using to limit testing?

For example, you might wish to ask companies not to test near parades, first amendment events, active school zones, or construction areas. Is it easy for companies to access this information, preferably electronically? Are they interested in doing that? Will they follow your requested testing/operational exclusion areas? What do you plan to do if they ignore your requests to restrict testing in sensitive areas?

(3) How will you ensure testing and operational equity?

What if disruption, testing incidents, and other issues are concentrated in historically disadvantaged areas? (This might happen due to company policy, but might instead be an unintended emergent result due to higher-than-average population density and emergency response activity in such areas.)

How will you know whether exposure to testing risk is being imposed in an equitable manner, especially if robotaxi companies claim that where they test is a trade secret?

If robotaxis are being sold based on service to the disabled and for other social goods, how will you be able to measure whether companies are living up to their promises?

(4) How will you issue traffic tickets to a robotaxi?

Some states require a moving violation citation to be issued to a natural person, but robotaxis don't have a driver. Consider proactively moving to get state-level regulations fixed sooner rather than later to correct this. Without the ability to ticket robotaxis you might find yourself without viable enforcement tools for the worst robotaxi behaviors that might occur.

(5) How can you productively engage with companies despite municipal preemption laws?

Apparently in some cities there is a good working relationship with between city government and robotaxi operators. In San Francisco the city and the companies are practically at war. There are no magic solutions, but trying hard up front to build bridges before things get tense is better than reacting to bad news.


Phil Koopman has been working on self-driving car safety for more than 25 years.

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