Autonomous Cars Are Coming; Is Miami Prepared?

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The autonomous vehicles are coming. Yes, really. Uber’s self-driving truck, Otto, just made its first beer run. Tesla’s Model S can now drive itself, sort of. Most industry experts and market watchers believe we will begin seeing the implementation of driverless technology into large vehicle fleets in the next three to five years.

But before you can start taking naps on the Dolphin Expressway while your robot car drives you to work, it's important to know that, at least in the short term, autonomous vehicles will create as many problems as they will solve. Experts warn of massive increases in congestion and unemployment, along with decreases in municipal revenue from parking and public transportation systems.

So how is Miami, a city already struggling with its car culture, preparing to welcome its future robot overlords?

“We want to build the infrastructure because we know they’re coming,” says Carlos Cruz-Casas, assistant director of the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works. Because real efficiencies from autonomous vehicles begin appearing only around the 80 percent adoption rate, cities across the nation will have to figure out how to better streamline traffic and reduce congestion with a mix of human- and machine-operated vehicles on the road. One solution the county is implementing is an “intelligent” traffic-signal system that promises to allow vehicles to “talk” to traffic signals via a massive municipal Wi-Fi network.

Benjamin de la Peña, an autonomous vehicle expert and director of community and national strategy for the Knight Foundation, points out, “Cars are a really inefficient way of getting around. You have 50 square feet of vehicle transporting just one person. Now imagine if that person sends the car around the block while he’s picking up his dry cleaning or sends the car to pick up the kids from school.”

Indeed, fleets of autonomous vehicles, such as the one Uber is deploying in Pittsburgh this month, have the capacity to put people on the road who can’t drive. The elderly, children under the age of 16, and even those without driver's licenses could contribute to the already-nightmarish 6 p.m. traffic jams on I-95 if the price of an Uber or Lyft ride drops low enough.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that many municipalities might find their desire to limit or regulate autonomous vehicles hampered by state and federal regulations. Currently, Florida is one of the few states that has declared open season for robots on its roads, allowing driverless cars to go anywhere, alone, at anytime in the Sunshine State. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade is unlikely to roll out automated buses; if the county decided to jump on the robot bandwagon, strong backlash from powerful public-sector unions is almost guaranteed.

In the face of such a limited toolkit, the DOT's Cruz-Casas gets philosophical. “As a department, we have to stop thinking of ourselves as facilitators of the movement of people and start imagining ourselves as information and network managers," he says. "That’s the way we are going be able to adapt with this technology, reduce congestion, and have a more livable Dade County.”

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