MML#5 – Are Cities Prepared for Autonomous Vehicles?

MML#5 – Are Cities Prepared for Autonomous Vehicles?

(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 1, 2017)

Lansing, MI – There are two statistics that stood out in the presentation about autonomous vehicles at the Michigan Municipal Conference in March.

The first is that 94% of auto accidents are caused by human error.

The second is that the average car is in use just 8% of the time.

Harry Lightsey, Executive Director of Federal Affairs for Cyber-Connected Cars for General Motors, spoke to hundreds of local elected officials and city administrators from across the state to let them know what is coming and what they can do to prepare.

“We’re excited to be part of the future in Michigan,”  Lightsey said.  He recalled having spent 25 years in the telecommunications industry before going to work for GM – a career spanning the breakup of Ma Bell to the iphone.  “We’re convinced that the next 25 years in automotive technology will be like the last 25 in telcom.”

Safety is a big factor in the push for autonomous, aka self-driving, vehicles.  “We believe we can build vehicles that are better,” Lightsey said.  “They won’t be distracted.  They are completely aware 360 degrees around the vehicle.”

Though it may seem uncomfortable for some to think about, the progression of technology makes sense. OnStar service began 20 years ago, where drivers are connected to the internet for GPS and rescue services. There are sensors that alert drivers when they come too close to other cars or objects, sensors that alert drivers of vehicles in their blind spots, sensors for tire inflation and fluid levels.

These kinds of technology and more combined with connectivity to GPS and software programs make these autonomous cars possible.

“People are telling us, you’re going to have to prove it to me.  I’m not ready to be in a car without a driver behind the wheel,” he said. And GM intends to prove it.

“Last year the Michigan legislature made a big move to make Michigan a leader in this area,” Lightsey said.  There are currently test fleets in Arizona, California and Michigan that are running in metropolitan areas, including Detroit.  Lightsey showed a video of an actual ride through Detroit streets in a driverless vehicle.

“Every day these vehicles are out on public streets,” he said.  As these vehicles become more available it will mean safer riding for people of any age or ability.

It will also mean a shift in the way vehicles are used.

“15 million people are using ride share and by 2020 it will be more than 50 million,” he said.  GM has invested in Lyft and is testing out self-driving ride share possibilities with their Maven division in cities including DC, Detroit, Denver, Chicago, Orlando LA and San Franscisco.  He said these services will be available “in the next few years,” and that such services will impact parking concerns in those cities.  “The average car is in use 8% of the time. The rest of the time it’s parked taking up space in a garage, a driveway, a parking deck or on a street.  We hope cars to be used 80% of the time with ride sharing.”

He noted that they will need to park at times for charging, since the cars are electric cars based on the Chevy Volt design.

Nicole DuPuis, Principal Associate of Urband Innovation at the National League of Cities, has been watching the trend of driverless vehicles and how their emergence ties into issues of infrastructure and governance.

“None have a crystal ball. It’s hard to legislate on issues when we don’t know what’s coming,” DuPuis said.  Her team looked at 68 communities’ transportation planning documents and learned that only 6% mentioned driverless technology and only 3% considered ride share services in their planning.

“This is coming. Start planning for this,” she said.

One key ingredient to making autonomous cars work in cities, is for cities and manufacturers to communicate.  There is the ability for traffic control functions to be online and communicating with driverless vehicles.

She also talked about infrastructure needs, such as installing electric vehicle charging stations, adequate signange, striping and streets that are safe. 

Another area of synergy could be if autonomous vehicles could provide cities with data based on things that sensors and cameras pick up.  For example, these cars could report potholes or broken streetlights.  They could provide real time traffic information. And they could provide evidence of accidents or crimes.

DuPuis also said municipalities should work together.  “Transportation is regional.  It doesn’t stop at the city line or the state line, so cooperation is essential,” she said.

Public acceptance is another issue that local governments are going to have to consider, especially as there is likely to be push back and pressure not to allow autonomous vehicles on the road.  “Not everybody’s on board. There are mixed reaction.  You have to have open dialogue and it has to be on going,” she said. She urged city leaders to begin talking about autonomous cars now so that communities are prepared for their arrival.

The League of Cities will be coming out with an in-depth report about autonomous vehicles and how cities can prepare sometime in April.

The Michigan Municipal League 2017 Capital Conference took place March 21-22 in Lansing.  Oakland County Times will be featuring stories from the conference over the next few weeks.  If you’d like to sign up for daily headlines from Oakland County Times go to

For other articles from the MML Conference, and conferences past, go to

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