Students, local officials simulate autonomous vehicles

To work through questions about congestion, safety, data privacy, equity and the other issues that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will likely bring, local officials, graduate students and faculty held a simulation exercise at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy on March 12.

“We have seen the arrival of new technologies such as cell phones and ridesharing that have a significant impact – good and bad – on the way we go about our lives,” said John Foote, an infrastructure and finance professor in the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) in the Brooks School. “If we knew then what we know now, would we have prepared differently for these technologies?” 

 During the simulation, CIPA students worked alongside three representatives of the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County. They weighed the operating environment and regulations that would position local governments to tap AVs’ opportunities while minimizing adverse consequences.

“The intent is to allow all stakeholders to share their perspectives on AV policy,” said Mark Fagan, director of the Autonomous Vehicles Policy Initiative at Harvard University’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, who guided the simulation. “We want to find areas of common interest as well as conflict, and then to envision a scenario in which AV’s work for everyone in the community.”

 Each participant was assigned a role. A “mayor’s office” proposed an AV policy for the community and then representatives of vehicle providers learned the perspectives of advocacy groups representing privacy interests and vulnerable populations.

Among the overarching challenges that arose during the discussions:

  • Ensuring everyone in the city has access to driverless vehicles.
  • Determining the infrastructure, such as roads and signage, that would be necessary and how it would be funded.
  • Settling the issue of access to the enormous quantity of data that autonomous vehicles collect as they move about.

The simulation revealed the work that is ahead for the companies that build driverless vehicles and the communities where they will operate. “It’s going to be a balancing act,” Foote said. “Policymakers will have to stay ahead of the technology, and it won’t be easy.”

John Foote is a lecturer in the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs and Jim Hanchett is the assistant dean of communications in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

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Becka Bowyer