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What Cities and Countries Are Opening the Roads to Self-Driving Cars?

Argo AI autonomous vehicles are being tested in Miami, Austin and Pittsburgh, among other cities.

Argo AI autonomous vehicles are being tested in Miami, Austin and Pittsburgh, among other cities.

What nations and cities will be the first to deploy self-driving car technology at scale? Only time will tell. But when autonomous vehicle experts consider that question, the same places are repeatedly cited as likely hotbeds for driverless cars. On the international level, it’s the United States, Germany, and China. And, within the U.S., industry observers point to the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, the Phoenix area, Miami, Austin and Detroit. 

“Some places are doing it faster and better than others,” said Cliff Winston, a senior fellow and transportation specialist at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization. “Other locations are saying that they don’t want to go so fast, that there is potential for mistakes.”

Winston explained that some emerging hubs of self-driving are cueing in on acute societal needs. “Beijing is a textbook case,” he said. “China has major problems with congestion and emissions. Therefore, Beijing believes there are huge opportunities for improving quality of life.” Legislators and regulators in some U.S. states, meanwhile, envision autonomous vehicles as a potential strategy for filling gaps in transportation accessibility, not to mention a way to demonstrate innovation leadership.

Others are eager to welcome self-driving due to competitive economic pressures. “In the case of Germany, it has benefited significantly over the years for having sophisticated manufacturing practices,” said Eric Tanenblatt, global chair of public policy and regulation and leader of Autonomous Vehicles practice at Dentons, an international law firm. “Germany doesn’t want to lose its edge” as automation becomes more commonplace. 

Where Needs Meets Desire

The formation of a self-driving hub requires both supply and demand, says Winston. A city might be eager to work with industry leaders, proactively defining rules and regulations for autonomous vehicle testing and deployment, but self-driving companies must want to be in that city as well. “Some places may want people to come, but the companies could say they don’t want to test in the area. That place might have strict liability laws or an unfavorable regulatory environment, as can be common in Europe, or excessively snowy and rainy weather, said Winston.

Besides, well-positioned companies are not found evenly across the United States. They are abundant in Silicon Valley, which helps explain why the Bay Area is abuzz with autonomous-vehicle testing. Another hotbed of innovation, Pittsburgh, is home to Carnegie Mellon University and a large roster of robotics startups (one industry group recently proclaimed the city the Robotics Capital of the World). It also boasts a track record of collaborative government-industry policymaking that facilitates innovation. “Pittsburgh is just the kind of environment where autonomous vehicles and other technologies tend to flourish,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.

Rainwater refers to CMU, Silicon Valley tech companies, and Detroit automakers as “anchor institutions.” The surrounding communities are also brimming over with young tech-savvy workers and engineers happy to see their hometowns become capitals of self-driving innovation.

The final piece of the puzzle is finding favorable test environments. San Francisco is dense but not overwhelming like New York City. Pittsburgh provides a lot of unique urban roadways and bridges. And Phoenix and Miami feature flat, wide-open roads with year-round warm weather. With its partner Argo AI, Ford established Miami as a primary test ground, leaning into its reputation for heavy traffic, unpredictable drivers, and a steady mix of pedestrians and cyclists. (Argo and another automaker partner, VW, will soon begin testing in Munich and Hamburg, Germany.) 

Florida, Arizona, and Texas are known for having created a welcoming regulatory environment for autonomous vehicles. But it would be simplistic to say that self-driving testing only occurs in such locales. Rainwater cites California, and the city of Pittsburgh, as highly regulated jurisdictions that are nonetheless welcoming to autonomous vehicle testing. “You can have a less regulated environment and have great innovation,” he said, “but you can also have a quite regulated environment and see innovation flourish.”

There Are Stans, But What About Bans?

From California to Norway to Bogota, governments and regulators are placing limits or outright bans on cars with internal combustion engines, including autonomous vehicles.. But there appear to be no outright bans on autonomous vehicles themselves. In general, places without autonomous-vehicle testing are taking a wait-and-see approach. “I wouldn’t say that any [locales] are directly shunning the industry,” said Tanenblatt. “They just don’t have the means to regulate technology properly.”

It’s still early days for autonomous vehicles, but welcoming them to your city or region early could create a lasting advantage. “The earlier you get on with it, the better,” said Winston. “You’ll discover problems and sort them out.” There’s also a bit of FOMO at work (behavioral scientists call this the demonstration effect.) When reluctant locales see what’s going on in Arizona or Florida, they won’t want to be left out. Internationally as well, “the demonstration effect could be quite powerful,” said Winston. “If we see that China is really making progress on AVs, that may very well wake us up.” Recent actions in France—which just followed Germany in setting policy to allow autonomous vehicles on public roads—may accelerate innovation on the continent and beyond.

“It’s just like any other technology. You always have your early adopters,” said Tanenblatt. “Some jurisdictions will be early adopters of the technology. But I think the others will catch up very quickly because the market will demand it.”

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