The Ford Argo self driving car in downtown Miami by Phillip Pessar licensed under Creative Commons.

“Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will be the most disruptive technology to hit society worldwide since the advent of the motorcar,” says No One at the Wheel, a forthcoming book co-authored by New York-based transportation consultant and journalist Samuel I. Schwartz, a.k.a. columnist “Gridlock Sam” of the New York Daily News. For once, governments have a chance to get ahead of a major technological disruption, if they can summon the will to do so.

Schwartz and journalist Karen Kelly provide a roadmap for private and public stakeholders who want to do it right. Some of their major points are:

1. “Communities could lose cash – and replace it if they're smart.” Schwartz and Kelly cite a study using 2016 data in Governing Magazine that says AVs will cost DC $502 per capita annual revenue from decreasing speeding and parking tickets, gas taxes, vehicle registration and licensing, and other fees. (This is the second-highest per capita figure for a major US metro area, after San Francisco.)

Some of that money can be recouped by taxing and licensing autonomous vehicle services, but these fees by themselves won't be enough. Cities will have to wisely repurpose former parking lots and driving land for activities that will get the public out into the town square generating sales tax revenue, and into downtown properties generating hotel and real estate tax revenue.

2. “[T]here is a good way to proceed and a bad way to proceed”: Uber, a leader in AV development, more than tripled its DC lobbying costs from $314,000 in 2014 to $1.36 million for 2016. Schwartz and Kelly predict that Uber and others in the AV industry will combine aggressive lobbying with pricing wars until it controls an area, undercutting transportation alternatives to drive them out of business, then raising prices. That's the bad way.

The good way is for governments to recognize that a “balanced” optimal solution will improve quality of life. “We can walk short distances, bike medium distances, take transit in cities, and use AVs for longer trips. We need a mix of modes of transport, not reliance on AVs to do it all.”

3. “The future of traffic hinges on ownership”: Schwartz and Kelly present a nightmare scenario where gas-guzzling “mobile McMansions” become the norm and invade every bit of available green space. “[S]ome AVs, if privately owned, could be the size of Winnebagoes: who doesn't want to travel with a refrigerator, massage chair, and stationary bike comfortably within reach?”

How people view AV ownership – as something to be prized or a hassle – will be the single greatest determining factor in whether city congestion improves or deteriorates. If car ownership continues to be seen as a vital rite of passage, congestion will worsen. If people can start to see mobility as a service, provided by fleets of AVs, then there will be fewer vehicles on the road, being used more efficiently.

To get passengers to use fleet-owned AVs consistently, cities need to determine what the maximum wait-time is for the average passenger. The authors guess five minutes, which means that “vehicles would have to be strategically placed in and around towns and cities.” To encourage this goal, the authors suggest that city governments could set discounts on operating or licensing fees if a fleet meets or exceeds a wait-time goal, or even impose fines on underperforming fleets.

The region has the opportunity to do this right

The DC metropolitan area has a lousy record of proactively meeting tech-caused disruptions caused by the likes of Uber and Airbnb. It has a chance to get it right this time. The question is not if AVs are coming, but when.

Schwartz and Kelly say: “By 2025, hands-free driving may be as common as E-Zpass tags became in the early 1990s. By 2035, we may find the majority of driving miles are completed by machines, not humans. It actually doesn't matter when exactly the driven car will disappear – the lead-up to complete replacement will be a shock to our system, and we need to be prepared.”

No One at the Wheel, by Samuel I. Schwartz with Karen Kelly, will be published in paper and ebook formats in November 2018 by Public Affairs Books. This post is based on an advanced electronic galley copy of the book. The final text may differ.

David McAuley is an English teacher and blogger. He has written about Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) for Borderstan and Popville, and was the founder of the ANC blog Short Articles about Long Meetings.