Bryant Walker Smith discussing the legal aspects of autonomous driving

Planning for Tomorrow & Not Today’s Perception

Noted transportation and legal expert, Bryant Walker Smith’s recently published 46 page article, How Governments Can Promote Automated Driving, is a must-read guide for anyone interested in the transition from human to machine-directed transportation systems. The title is a bit deceiving, as it is provides a big picture view of how to create a legal and societal foundation for maximizing the benefit of impending technological changes to transportation and the built-environment.

Walker summarizes why his advice is important when he suggests:

“In short, governments should plan on the basis of tomorrow’s potential utility, not today’s purported perception.”

This foundation of a new transportation system is best built through coordination between local and state governments and agencies, private enterprise and community groups. Walker points out the importance of having a single point of contact in government to coordinate the transition.

He is clear that government needs to think differently about the future and need to question their assumptions:

“…governments should ensure that their planning processes begin to account for automated driving. Long-term assumptions should be revisited for land-use plans, infrastructure projects, building codes, bonds, and budgets.”

Along these lines, he suggests that the policy makers “internalize the cost of driving” to ensure a level playing field between different modes of transport. For instance, Stanford’s Stefan Heck recently suggested that automobiles are subsidized such that the associated taxes and fees account for only 45%  their total costs to society.

Bryant Walker Smith discussing the legal aspects of autonomous driving
Bryant Walker Smith discussing the legal aspects of autonomous driving

To close the gap, Walker recommends raising fuel taxes, reducing parking subsidies, and increasing insurance minimums. The resulting new revenue would be used to improve infrastructure, which would benefit traditional automobile, automated transport and other modes of mobility (e.g. low-speed, delivery robots).

What these ideas have in common is that they associate revenues with costs, unlike other proposals where a general sales tax is used to fund infrastructure improvements.

Some aspects of his proposal, such as increasing insurance minimums, would require state-level action and others could be implemented by local governments. He suggests that any regressive impacts could be compensated for with things such as transportation vouchers.

Success in adapting to this new environment starts at the community level and includes a mix of stakeholders:

“community that wants to attract or implement a truly driverless system should demonstrate that it is a strong candidate for such a system…..A community that brings together local stakeholders to preemptively develop such a proposal could also discover compelling business cases that may not require external support. “”
Perhaps the most useful part of his paper is the Strategy Checklist that provides a one-page “to-do” list split into four groups; administrative strategies, legal strategies, community strategies and general strategies.  Even though this checklist appears at the end of the document, this is a good place to start for any community wanting to ensure they also evolve with the coming changes in mobility.

Smith, Bryant Walker, How Governments Can Promote Automated Driving (March 17, 2016). Available at SSRN: or


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