A new digital tool tracking how autonomous vehicles are being deployed and tested across the world went online today, and it’s an interesting — and honest — snapshot of where we are right now with this new technology. The Global Atlas of Autonomous Vehicles in Cities, a joint effort between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute, shows which city governments are testing AVs, and more importantly, it shows how few cities are preparing for the onslaught of self-driving cars that is expected in the next decade.
According to the map, 53 cities are testing or thinking about testing AVs. Of that number, 35 cities including San Francisco, Austin, Nashville, Washington, Paris, Helsinki, and London are already piloting projects. Another 18 cities, such as Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo, are undertaking surveys or assessing the implications of AVs. The groups plan to update the map in real-time as more pilot projects involving self-driving cars come online.
A year ago, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a plan to help cities get ready for self-driving cars. It included a set of policy recommendations for cities that are just getting up to speed with driverless cars.
"The advent of autonomous cars is one of the most exciting developments ever to happen to cities," Bloomberg said at the time. "And if mayors collaborate with one another, and with partners in the private sector, they can improve people’s lives in ways we can only imagine today."
As it stands, one of the main takeaways from this map is how few cities are testing autonomous cars. For all the media attention that projects conducted by the likes of GM, Uber, and Waymo tend to generate, you’d think our roads would be chock-a-block with driverless cars. But on a geographic-basis, these vehicles are scarce to non-existent. And there’s plenty of outside research to explain why this is.
According to the National League of Cities’ research, only 6 percent of the US’s largest cities’ transportation plans include any language on the potential effect of driverless technology on mobility. The majority of these plans, which project outcomes decades into the future, focus almost exclusively on the problem of automobile congestion.
Meanwhile, a survey of 30 cities by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute found the biggest barrier to making these preparations was regulatory and financial. “Cities are struggling to find the human and financial capacity to deliver more projects— and the right actions are not yet clear or urgent enough,” the groups conclude. “Some cities face roadblocks in the form of other levels of government that override or preempt local actions.”
Indeed, the US Congress is weighing new rules right now that would preempt states and local governments from passing laws to regulate self-driving cars. If approved, it would have a broad impact. Though fully-autonomous cars are still years away from widespread adoption, 25 states have already passed legislation or issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
These barriers haven’t stopped major companies from funneling billions of dollars into technology startups working on the hardware and software that powers autonomous vehicles. A recent Brookings Institute survey found more than 160 deals, including investments, partnerships, and acquisitions, worth nearly $80 billion. And given the limitations of the data analyzed, the groups estimates the amount to “significantly more than this.”
Autonomous driving is still very much in its early stages, as we can see from this map. You can count the number of places testing actual self-driving cars on two hands. But given the huge amounts of cash flowing into this industry, it seems reasonable to assume that this is just the calm before the storm.