Future Tense

Cities Need to Band Together on Self-Driving Cars

We need a modern-day Hanseatic League to give local governments bargaining power.

Google’s Lexus RX 450H Self Driving Car is seen parked on Pennsylvania Ave. on April 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Google has logged over 300,000 miles testing its self driving cars around the country.
Google’s Lexus RX 450h self-driving car is seen parked on Pennsylvania Avenue on April 23, 2014, in Washington.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

From 1449–74, an association of market towns and cities along the Baltic coast in Europe known as the Hanseatic League waged an on-again, off-again war with England over maritime trading privileges. Hanseatic man-of-war ships, including the feared Peter von Danzig, raided the English coast. The Anglo-Hanseatic War ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474, which gave the Hanseatic League access to many British ports and ownership of the London Steelyard until it sold the property in 1853. At its zenith in the 15th century, the Hanseatic League boasted about 200 cities across seven countries, flexing its economic might across Europe, imposing blockages to promote its interests, and even waging wars.

Today, cities may not need security from marauding bands. But they have to join together to maintain autonomy over their streets and communities in the face of rapidly emerging technologies being deployed by powerful corporations. This is most evident with the swift rise of autonomous vehicles in cities across the U.S. and beyond.

From Uber and Waymo (a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet) to Intel and General Motors, massive corporations with a global reach are using city streets to experiment with and run real-life tests of their self-driving technology. The spoils to be gained by those able to demonstrate technical effectiveness and business value are significant: Industry analysts say the market could be worth $126.8 billion by 2023. As these companies test their technology on public streets, they have shown little interest in operating in cities and communities that have expressed a desire for certain regulatory conditions, tight oversight, or substantive data sharing. Instead, Uber and others have shown a preference for cities and states, like Arizona, that declare they are “open for business” and, for now, have taken a more laissez-faire approach to the industry. As the recent fatal collision of a self-driving Uber with a pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg, here in Tempe, Arizona demonstrates, this power asymmetry has real consequences for cities and their citizens—who have had little opportunity to weigh in on whether or how these cars should be tested on their streets.

This dynamic is exacerbated by the competing interests of actions taken at the state and federal levels. Some states, like California, have permitted driverless vehicles to operate while cities themselves are left to take a wait-and-see approach. At the federal level, autonomous vehicles need only comply with basic automobile-safety standards. Beyond that, cities see only uncertainty around regulatory developments.

But the example of the 12th century could help helpless cities from the 21st. To counter the political and economic clout of the autonomous-vehicle industry and the regulatory vacuum left by the state and federal levels, cities should take a cue from their medieval counterparts and once again band together in a new Hanseatic League—call it an Association for Urban Autonomy. This time, the purpose is to generate the collective power to push back against industry and determine the rules by which autonomous vehicles will operate in our cities. Cities need to take control of the discussion and make it clear that testing on city streets cannot be just for the benefit and profit of corporations.

A new association of cities would join in a common cause for engagement, transparency, data sharing, and collaborative experiments to make autonomous vehicles work for cities. To date, unless a city or state commits to minimal oversight of autonomous-vehicle operations, corporations have displayed little to no tolerance for substantive engagement with city governments and local communities. As Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, said in September 2016, “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.” Less than a year later, when Pittsburgh pushed back against Uber on its lack of follow-through on commitments related to data sharing and hiring practices, the city and company clashed. Though Waymo has cooperated with public-safety and emergency-response teams in Chandler, Arizona, these engagements avoid hard discussions about how the public feels about autonomous-vehicle testing. Do local communities feel comfortable with driverless Waymo vehicles riding by schools at morning drop-off? The answer could be yes—but there haven’t been enough opportunities for people to express that.

The absence of meaningful collaboration between cities and industry as well as the recent autonomous-vehicle crashes have exposed another key element in a new association platform: the need for transparency on autonomous-vehicle safety and performance. At the federal level, only voluntary reporting requirements exist for self-driving-car safety. At the state and city level, there are either no or minimal reporting requirements. In California, companies are required to report incidents. Elsewhere, disengagements—that is, when a driver takes over from the autonomous driving system—are reported. These coarse categories do not capture how vehicles are performing under different weather conditions, at different times of day, and in different street and infrastructure settings. Yet, this more detailed performance data is available. Engineers and computer scientists working for driverless companies undoubtedly analyze it and run simulations of problematic situations to enhance performance. Yet we, the public, who are bearing the risks that these new technologies present, have no way of knowing how companies are performing until there is a tragic accident.

As autonomous vehicles use our city streets as labs, they are generating all kinds of data about road conditions, traffic safety and congestion, and how people move around. This is already happening as ride-shares alter how people get from one place to another—like using Lyft Line instead of the public bus. How people and things move around, changing traffic patterns, and transportation mode usage are critical information for transportation planners. However, much of this data is not shared with city policymakers and planners, creating a massive blind spot as new technologies and business models reshape mobility in our cities. An association of cities would demand a quid pro quo—you want to experiment on our city streets? We want your data so we can make informed decisions.

Currently, the only clear benefit of this testing to the city and its citizens is some vague notion of being viewed as “innovative.” But cities do have real infrastructure and public policy problems that autonomous vehicles might be able to address. For example, how can they be used to provide mobility access to communities without good public transit services, or to those who are unable to drive because of a disability? If the autonomous-vehicle industry wants a community’s implicit help in testing their product, an association of cities could require that they help address some of each community’s pressing problems.

It may seem unlikely that an Association for Urban Autonomy would actually come into existence. Indeed, there are some barriers to this happening. For example, some cities may not want to draw the ire of politicians who have set permissive policies for the industry. Others may not have the city-staff capacity to engage in discussions about issues that seem remote relative to their day-to-day concerns.

But just because it will be difficult does not make it any less important. Furthermore, an exhaustive set of cities probably isn’t necessary for the association to be effective. Instead, we just need a diverse set of cities—not just economically and geographically, but also in terms of a mix of approaches to transportation systems. Boston, Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento, California, for instance, have developed relatively progressive initiatives to deal with self-driving cars. These cities should work with others like Houston, Atlanta, and Phoenix, which have incredibly different transportation-system demands and different initial approaches to autonomous vehicles. These cities can join others from Seattle to Gainesville, Florida, that have either developed initiatives or pilot programs to generate a shared platform that they might then ask a larger network of cities to sign on to. This could be enough to send a clear signal to the industry about how to approach and work with cities.

Seven hundred years ago, cities from London to Novgorod, Russia, were united by a set of standards and expectations around trade and the provision of collective security against pirates and hostile neighbors. Alone, cities do not have the economic and political clout to set the terms for how new technologies are developed and deployed. But there’s strength in numbers today, just as there was when the Hanseatic League was born.