Column: The Benefits and Challenges of Autonomous Vehicles

More than 150 years ago, education reformer Horace Mann recognized that the economic success of Massachusetts depended on human brainpower and innovation. He famously said, “Having no other mines to work, Massachusetts has mined into the human intellect; and, from its limitless resources, she has won more sustaining and enduring prosperity and happiness than if she had been founded on a stratification of silver and gold, reaching deeper down than geology has yet penetrated.”

Today, the Commonwealth continues to be a national and global leader in technology and our economic growth and prosperity depends even more on our creativity and ability to foster innovation.

One exciting area of new technology where I believe Massachusetts should seek to lead the way is autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles. An autonomous vehicle (AV) is capable of navigating without human input by sensing its environment and proceeding accordingly. Seemingly the stuff of science fiction not too long ago, AV technology has made such significant advances that experts estimate they could be commercially available within the next five years.

Autonomous vehicles offer the potential for significant benefits to our society and economy. Improved safety and reduced accidents are certainly at the top of the list. AVs hold the promise of greater transportation accessibility and social mobility for elderly, disabled, and low-income people. They could also enable a transformation in urban design, with much more efficient use of roadways and less need for parking spaces.

At the same time, this new technology brings potential risks and challenges that need to be anticipated and proactively addressed. Current public perception is that AVs are less safe than human drivers and, understandably, it will take time before people are willing to trust their lives to self-driving cars. Experts predict that AV technology, if not effectively managed, could actually increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20-40%, increasing congestion on roadways and increasing pollution and carbon emissions. There is also the prospect of “zombie” cars (vehicles with no passengers inside) endlessly circulating to avoid paying for parking or to serve as mobile billboards. Additionally, AVs could impact revenue streams upon which our cities, towns, and state depend, such as parking tickets, speeding tickets, and gas taxes.

I believe Massachusetts is well positioned to help ensure that we realize the benefits of AVs while effectively managing the risks. In doing so, we could become global leaders in this transformational technology. Working together with the Conservation Law Foundation, I’m pleased to have sponsored legislation in the Senate, An Act to Promote the Safe Integration of Autonomous Vehicles into the Transportation System of the Commonwealth. This bill incorporates the best policy ideas and practices from the federal government and other states to encourage a transition to a shared, clean-energy fleet of AVs, resulting in less congestion, cleaner air, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and greater mobility options for all Massachusetts residents.

The legislation creates a flexible regulatory framework to allow and encourage AVs on our roads, without limiting that right only to certain auto manufacturers. Critical safety measures are included, like rigorous testing, regular software updates, and failure alert systems. The bill also seeks to strongly encourage AVs to be zero-emission (electric) vehicles, and to promote shared use. Finally, the bill establishes a road usage charge (VMT) to replace lost gas tax revenue, with a base rate per mile and various discounts for factors such as multiple passengers, off-peak hours, certain geographic areas, lower income riders, lighter vehicles, etc.

As AV technology advances, we must also consider other public policy ramifications, such as lost jobs for taxi/TNC and truck drivers and the impact on urban redesign of our cities and towns. These are big challenges that we must start thinking about and planning for now.