The mobility system in the United States is unsafe, inequitable, and environmentally destructive. Most Americans rely on personally owned, individually occupied, and gas-powered cars—a status quo that leads to tens of thousands of people dying each year in collisions, creates barriers to employment and other opportunities for people of color and people with low incomes, and maintains a resource intensive transportation system that contributes to climate change and spurs sprawling land uses that destroy ecologies. Autonomous vehicles (AVs)—self-driving cars that can travel along publicly accessible streets some or all of the time without human involvement—could help mitigate these problems, if they are implemented in a thoughtful, well-regulated manner. However, if deployed haphazardly with inadequate oversight and regulation, they could produce even worse inequities than those caused by the current system.
To evaluate the current landscape for AV deployment and use in the United States, we conducted a study focusing on automobile-sized AVs designed for passenger use as opposed to other types of AVs that could be used for public transit service or freight. Through a scholarship review, a scan of legislation nationwide, and interviews with stakeholders, we examine key potential benefits that AVs could generate, as well as the problems they could exacerbate. Carefully designed regulations could help ensure that these new technologies improve access to mobility and reduce pollution.