Guest Blog: Autonomous vehicles: Who is going to lead the way?

Graphic by | Joan McGuire

Civic and business leaders need to engage in robust planning discussions about how to leverage AVs to achieve health, safety and climate objectives.

Share this article!

HB 3119, an Oregon bill seeking, among other things, to preempt local regulation of autonomous vehicles, appears to have run out of gas this session.  Portland formally opposed the measure, describing it as interfering with the City’s ability to ensure safe use of its right of way and prematurely authorizing widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles. 

Ultimately, some system will be necessary to govern how autonomous vehicles operate across various jurisdictional lines.

Portland is not, however, waiting, and on June 9, as part of its Smart Autonomous Vehicles Initiative, issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking input from innovators as to ways to align the technology with City objectives. The City is positioning  itself to be a working laboratory for positive deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Today’s new vehicles increasingly provide levels of driving support. New car features already routinely include intelligent assistance with tasks like parking assist and lane warning technology.  Fully autonomous vehicles are coming and likely will be here sooner than we expect.

Two visions of the relationship between autonomous vehicles and climate change are usually discussed.  At one extreme, autonomous vehicles result in more single-occupancy or even no-occupancy vehicle miles traveled. In this scenario, the owner of an autonomous vehicle now lives in outer suburbia because the ability to work, read for pleasure, or binge-watch House of Cards makes longer commute time a non-issue. 

RELATED STORY: EV conference outgrows space, attendance doubles

Further, once the car drops the commuter off at the office, rather than parking in a space that costs $200 a month, the car simply drives back home and awaits direction to return for pickup, making what was previously two trips now four.  Emissions increase but societal ills go beyond increased emissions. Privacy and hacking concerns abound. Employment tied to transport plummets in number as the UPS truck now drives itself. 

At the other extreme, autonomous vehicles move the world forward in reducing emissions. Multiple people share one electric autonomous vehicle.  As people share vehicles, fewer cars need to be manufactured, reducing production related emissions.  Emissions are further decreased as traffic control devices and cars communicate seamlessly, increasing the efficiency of traffic flow. 

Societal benefits go beyond reduction of emissions. The roads are safer because autonomous vehicles do not text and drive, drink and drive, or drive tired. Isolation of the disabled and elderly is reduced given the widespread availability of these vehicles.  Insurance premiums go down and residents have more disposable income.  Surface parking lots become obsolete and these centrally located plots of land are put to more productive use, providing new jobs.

For those pursuing a reduction in vehicle miles traveled and emissions, the challenge (independent of concerns related to protecting privacy and avoiding hacking and job loss) is to guide deployment of the technology toward the furtherance of the latter climate-positive scenario.

The question becomes not how to prevent autonomous vehicles from affecting the climate but how to make autonomous vehicles a tool to improve the climate.  The City of Portland has framed the challenge before it as essentially making sure that the new technologies advance its safety, equity, climate and employment goals and is actively seeking potential partners.


Portland’s RFI in and of itself will not result in a contract, according to the City, and it plans to soon release an Autonomous Vehicle Pilot Application and Permit Application. The RFI is, however, a valuable opportunity to provide input in AV discussions at an early stage and, from a business perspective, begin making connections for future discussions.

For example, areas identified as of particular interest to the City include:

    • Right-of-way Management — specifically as it pertains to curb pick-up and drop off zones;
    • First and last-mile solutions that connect users to transit lines, schools, jobs or services;
    • Freight delivery;
    • University, hospital, or campus autonomous electric shuttle;
    • Vehicle-to-infrastructure technology, such as communications between traffic signals and high occupancy vehicles, freight vehicles, or any sensors in the right of way;
    • AV’s data collection regarding the conditions and operations of the transportation system including pavement condition information;
    • Other data collection technology which may gather information related to transportation safety and planning: i.e., vehicle volumes, vehicle occupancy, routes, speeds, etc.
    • Incentive systems that increase the occupancy, or shared use of vehicles, decreases overall carbon emissions per person, or reduces congestion;
    • Mobile delivery services such as electric fresh food carts serving underserved neighborhoods; and
    •  Incentive systems that incorporate multi-occupant AVs with existing transit options, such as a smart phone app.

Whatever their business, this seems like an opportunity for public and private sector businesses and entrepreneurs to put their heads together, recognize the competing visions of the future of AV, and share proposals to further public objectives.

Michelle Rudd is a partner in the Portland office of Stoel Rives LLP where her practice focuses on community development issues related to condemnation and eminent domain and land use permitting and place making.