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Over the next decade, driverless vehicles will make their way along Seattle roadways, possibly bringing relief to one of the most congested cities in the United States. Or, according to a new report out of the University of Washington, they could make things worse.

Among the problems autonomous cars could bring to Seattle are more traffic congestion and greater inequality, according to a UW Tech Policy Lab report published in partnership with Challenge Seattle, an initiative formed by local CEOs, on Tuesday. But, the city can address these issues by working with manufacturers to implement new policies and regulations.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to fundamentally change transportation in Seattle, and we need to be ready for it,” said Christine Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle, in a news release. “This report offers a measured, research-based approach that will help Seattle prepare for a driverless future.”

Currently, driverless vehicles are legal in Washington state. In 2012, the Stanford Center for Internet and Society released a report concluding that autonomous cars are lawful unless prohibited by statue, and, like most states, Washington has little policy regarding the technology. Because of this, driverless vehicles are both undefined and unregulated by current law. The UW Tech Policy Lab report seeks to address this.

For the report, researchers studied current policy to identify key problems Seattle needs to address in light of driverless vehicle technology. It then makes recommendations for actions policymakers can take based on the assumption that both human-driven vehicles and autonomous vehicles will share roadways through at least 2050.

So, how can the city address Seattle drivers’ biggest concern: traffic? The report recommends the ride-sharing model.

Seattle traffic
Snarled traffic in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Autonomous vehicles could make longer commutes more appealing, since drivers will be able to multitask. If commutes do get longer, and more people independently own driverless cars, traffic will worsen. But, if driverless cars are deployed as “robo taxis,” it could reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

“Seattle should consider the ways in which AV traffic impacts are closely tied to models of AV ownership, and that areas of AV policy (e.g., AV sales taxes) that promote or discourage particular ownership models (ie: ride sharing) are likely to significantly influence Seattle traffic,” the report reads.

The city’s other main problem, inequality, could also be worsened by autonomous vehicle technology. Currently, driverless cars aren’t affordable for the average person. As more appear on Seattle highways, lower-income drivers sharing the road could end up being disproportionally targeted for traffic tickets.

Similarly, if the city implements overly restrictive regulations, driverless vehicles could be accessible to people who can’t independently drive due to disability. By proactively involving underrepresented groups in policy decisions, Seattle could address these problems before they arrive, the report said.

Planning is key for any new technology, but especially so with driverless vehicles. The impact they can have on cities extends beyond just the rush hour commute, and the UW Tech Policy Lab recommends the city implement an autonomous-vehicle strategy to guide policy decisions going forward.

“Autonomous vehicles are coming to cities, and in Seattle we’re planning today for how they will operate alongside all the other ways we get around,” said Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, in a news release. “This report captures the big picture and provides a solid foundation for next steps on AV policy making and implementation.”

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