Humphrey School Researchers Examine How Autonomous Vehicle Policies Impact Social Equity

April 11, 2022
Dashboard of an autonomous vehicle
Public policies governing autonomous vehicles have the potential to either increase transportation access to disadvantaged groups, or create a transportation network that is accessible only to the privileged few. Photo: Creative Commons

As the age of autonomous vehicles (AVs) becomes a reality, policymakers are beginning to plan for the changes in transportation systems that will be needed to accommodate this emerging technology.  

Researchers at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs say that planning is approaching a crossroads.

They note that AVs have the potential to either foster a more equitable future for disadvantaged groups by increasing overall transportation access, or exacerbate existing gaps by creating a transportation network that is accessible only to the privileged few.

Professor Jason Cao, researcher Frank Douma, and alumna Katie Emory (MURP '21), all urban planning experts at the Humphrey School, examined these equity questions in a new study published in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

Topics explored: 

  • Trends and opportunities in the policy landscape pertinent to AVs in the United States  
  • How these policies may influence AV deployment.
  • How deployment will affect the elderly, low-income groups, people living in rural areas, and other transportation-disadvantaged populations.

Through a review of academic and grey literature, and keyword searches using search terms such as “autonomous” and “vehicle,” Cao and Douma outline the importance of policy in shaping the way new technology is established, while also noting areas where more policy work is needed. 

Key findings:

  • Policymakers are beginning to plan for the potential equity impacts of AVs, but more opportunities remain for developing policies that will ensure the most equitable outcomes.
  • Policies addressing shared AVs and the economic impacts of AVs were somewhat common at the local and state levels, as were policy recommendations provided by nonprofit organizations. 
  • Few policies have been developed to support deployment of AVs in ways that address interpersonal security in the shared setting, nor the transportation needs of low-income people, people of color, or rural residents.

“Governments should ’dream big’ as they formulate equity visions for a world with AVs, and then tailor the policies to specifically meet their unique needs—consider demographics, land use, transportation infrastructure and economy,” said Douma. 

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation