The day will come, if it hasn’t already, when you’ll be riding down the road, glance to the side, and see a car motoring along with no driver. Autonomous vehicles are on the way, and two Harvard initiatives are helping to prepare Boston, and beyond, for their smooth arrival.
A few years ago, when tech companies like Uber and Airbnb spread across the nation and beyond, they introduced rapid and irreversible changes in how people travel. As the firms’ simple apps rocketed their platforms to popularity, the local policymakers responsible for ensuring that corporations contribute to the public good were left far behind, playing catch-up.
Policymakers around the globe grappled unevenly with these sudden technological shifts. In Hungary, lawmakers blocked Uber, and in Boston lawmakers passed tough laws on short-term housing rentals. Last summer, Cambridge officials ordered Bird, a dockless electric scooter rental company overseen by an app, to remove its scooters after it arrived without an agreement to operate. Now, as autonomous vehicles (AVs) are increasingly rolling through some American cities, policymakers are looking to avoid the past mistakes of reacting after the arrival of disruptive technology, and instead they’re planning for it.
They hope that, with thoughtful policies in place, self-driving cars will debut in a way that provides real public value. Their potential to improve civic life is great, including by reducing road deaths, increasing mobility for the elderly and disabled, and boosting transit in areas with little current access. At the same time, policymakers are wary of potential problems, such as increased road congestion, inequitable pricing and availability, and the loss of public revenue in a future with less need for metered parking and fewer traffic violations.
Current Harvard efforts are helping government officials to frame their early policies around AVs and provide recommendations for useful future laws. The efforts range from marathon discussion sessions in four locations, including Boston, to Harvard students tackling similar issues with Boston officials.
Here’s a look at these futuristic yet pragmatic Harvard efforts:
From craziness to preparing for a coming reality
Like many people, when Harvard lecturer in public policy Mark Fagan first heard the buzz around autonomous vehicles, he wrote it off as wishful thinking. That line of thinking, however, didn’t last long. “I just became convinced from talking to people that it wasn’t crazy, and it was really going to happen, and we ought to be ahead of it,” Fagan said.
As head of the new Autonomous Vehicle Policy Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Taubman Center for State and Local Government, Fagan is working to do just that, help officials craft policies while the technology is still emerging.
“What cities and towns are trying to do with AVs is plan in advance so that they bring them logically to the market in a way that supports public value as opposed to just private value,” Fagan said.
As part of their early effort, Fagan and Rafael Carbonell, executive director of the Taubman Center, reached out to the city of Boston, which has been a test bed for self-driving cars and was looking to dive deeper into the policy side. The pair worked with the city to convene more than 40 representatives from the business, technology, community, and transit sectors to conduct an exercise developed by Fagan called a policy scrum, an intensive session in the mold of a design sprint or hackathon. Completed over two days, the exercise helps officials fast-track their thinking on issues. The hope is they’ll leave a session with strategy options to shape policy.
For Boston, the priority was looking at how to encourage shared rides and vehicles within autonomous vehicle technology. In its Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, the city has endorsed using shared fleets of self-driving vehicles to reduce congestion.