Self-Driving Cars Are Here. Now What Should We Do?

This post was co-authored by Nicole DuPuis and Erich Zimmermann.

Much of the conversation about self-driving cars used to swirl around the anxious notion that they are coming and that their unprecedented technology promises chaos for unprepared roads. Now we can say definitively that they are here — and this reality is something that cities and regions need to address.

With autonomous vehicles (AVs) on the ground, local governments and regional organizations face challenging questions about how to plan for them, how to integrate them into mixed traffic environments, and how to develop policy around this complex new technology.

Communities across the country will be ground zero for the deployment of this new technology, which means that the first planning and policymaking will take place at the city and regional levels. This will inevitably include addressing necessary infrastructure upgrades, developing regulations for autonomous vehicles, working with state and federal policy makers, and forging relationships with auto manufacturers.

The reality is that we don’t know how this scenario is going to look upon deployment, but auto manufacturers and other actors are competing with one another and making promises to deploy AVs by 2020. New players are also joining the game, with Tesla and Faraday Future two of the more recent additions. To date, there are test pilots on public roads in Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), Arizona (Tempe) and California (Sacramento) — and the U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced ten Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds where more real-world testing of AVs will take place. We are rapidly approaching large-scale deployment of AVs into our transportation system.

If local and regional officials are already considering this, it still might feel like a crunch to figure out how these developments will impact their communities and initiate public engagement and education, get feedback from the public, and craft regulations that make sense for everyone — all in around two years. That isn’t a long time to figure out an issue that is unprecedented and increasingly complex.

Infrastructure needs will vary by community and region. Some of the basic investments that might be on the horizon include sensors or sensor networks that allow cars to communicate with surrounding infrastructure and other cars, and highly visible, well-painted road lineage. However, the nature of the infrastructure upgrades needed will depend on how autonomous vehicles are deployed in a community, and how that community plans for and regulates these vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are the preeminent infrastructure-related challenge of our time. Perhaps this challenge feels so pressing because we don’t yet know exactly what it will look like or how this new technology will be used. This year, during Infrastructure Week, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Regional Councils will address this challenge with a panel discussion, Preparing for Autonomous Vehicles on our Roads, on Friday, May 19, from 10:00–11:30 a.m. EDT.

This panel discussion will feature several experts in this field as well as local government and regional officials who can talk about the current state of autonomous vehicle research and technology development, what this means for communities and regions and how they should prepare, and how we can expect autonomous vehicles to work with existing mobility and transit systems.

Infrastructure Week is a national week of education and advocacy that brings together American businesses, workers, elected leaders and everyday citizens around all types of infrastructure issues and challenges. From May 15-19, leaders and citizens around America will highlight the state of our nation’s infrastructure — its roads, bridges, railways, ports, airports, water and sewer systems, energy grids and more — and encourage policymakers to invest in the projects, technologies and policies necessary to make America competitive, prosperous and safe.

The panel discussion on May 19 will be sponsored by Enterprise. Register here.

This blog is part of a series celebrating Infrastructure Week 2017. For more information about NLC’s role in this year’s coalition, visit

Featured image from Getty Images.

About the authors:

Nicole DuPuis is the principal associate for urban innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.



Erich Zimmermann is responsible for NARC’s transportation portfolio, which includes managing priorities for NARC’s members, lobbying for regional priorities on Capitol Hill, and carrying out a variety of programmatic, research, and communication initiatives to keep members informed.