McCormack Speaks

To HAV or to Hold: How Soon Do We Embrace the Autonomous Car?


By Christopher Dunne, McCormack Graduate School student

car on roadThe watchword in Silicon Valley is “disruption” and few technologies seem better positioned to disrupt than highly autonomous vehicles (HAVs). If our nation’s fleet was to change from one driven by error-prone humans to next-to-infallible machines, the need for professional drivers, auto insurance, and even the privately-owned vehicles could evaporate seemingly overnight. The cost-savings, again both in lives and money, may prove too good to turn down but the devil will clearly be in the details. What is a wonk to do?

Nearly all technologies must at some point make the transition from yesterday’s treasure to today’s trash. The personal electronic graveyards lurking in the recesses of our homes attest to this fact.

Policymakers are all too aware of this phenomenon. Every time they devote public resources to technology they run the risk that their investment will soon be overtaken by newer and better ways of doing things. Elaborate paper filing systems, dusty out-of-date hard-drives, and hulking mainframes can come to seem like an unkind mirror reflection of the very bureaucracies that house them.

The stakes in taxpayer dollars can be high and these historical memories should still give politicians pause before green-lighting pricey and inflexible new projects, especially with change just around the corner.

Massachusetts has some significant advantages when it comes to the potential transition to autonomous vehicles. Some are obvious: Greater Boston is making a name for itself in biotech, healthcare, and other cutting-edge markets. However, some of our advantages are less intuitive.

One of the Hub’s most frustrating features is seen as a plus for companies willing to dip their toes into the burgeoning HAV market: our network of labyrinthine cow paths and rotaries caked in winter’s ice and snow that passes for a street system. The thinking goes that if you can design a vehicle that can handle Boston, it can drive anywhere. So, odd as it may seem, companies want to test drive their vehicles on our roads for precisely the reasons humans don’t want to go near them.

That’s all well and good but without a policy framework for companies to operate within, California, Michigan, and other hotspots for technology and automobiles may still look more attractive. Fortunately, the Commonwealth is blessed with forward-thinking leadership on the issue.

Last fall, Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order putting in place a working group “to promote the testing and deployment of highly automated driving technologies.” The legislature has kept up the pace with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg highlighting the issue in his January inaugural address to the chamber while lawmakers of both houses have filed at least a half a dozen bills on self-driving cars.

Have we resolved when and how to make the transition to the new technology? No, and the bulk of that work is still ahead. But as is often the case, Massachusetts is poised to lead on this issue. Half the battle is knowing what’s coming down the pike.

Christopher Dunne is a student and McCormack Scholar at UMass Boston’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program.  He currently works for State Senator Adam Hinds (D-Pittsfield) as his legislative and budget director, managing the Senator’s state budget and policy agenda.

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