The Political Economy Of Autonomous Vehicles


While the techies are fine-tuning the technology platform and insuring safety protocols governments should begin to turn to addressing the natural consequences from the wide use of the technology. 

In the 1960s flying cars, moving walkways, smart homes, smart watches, talking robots, video conferencing even tanning beds were things of the imagination. But just as we have seen cartoon far-fetched imagery from the Jetsons become real life available technology, we can see that autonomous vehicles will eventually be in wide use in passenger vehicles, buses, and trucks. 

While the techies are fine-tuning the technology platform and insuring safety protocols governments should begin to turn to addressing the natural consequences from the wide use of the technology. 

There is a Political Economy of Autonomous Vehicles. 

Will there be less and less individuals applying for driver’s licenses? If so, that will result in fewer dollars in State general funds. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicle collects $4.5 Billion in registration, fees and sales most of which are used by their highway trust fund to build bridges and maintain highways and roadways.  It is possible that the wide-spread use of autonomous vehicles will have an impact on the amount of dollars available to replenish their highway trust fund.

If autonomous vehicles are in wide use, shuttling one passenger to the next passenger, how does a city make up the loss of revenue from meter and garage parking. For example, the State of Illinois anticipates that their new taxing scheme will bring in $60 million dollars a year in taxes on parking garages.

Given that autonomous vehicles are programmed to obey traffic laws and comply with regulations of operating on the roadways, what will offset the loss of millions of dollars of vehicle infraction violation fees that many cities use to plug the holes in their budgets? Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, annually budgets for $300 million in revenue from speed, red light, moving violation and parking infractions.

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly provided a lens into how the loss of this revenue wreaks havoc on the budgets of towns, cities and states.  The State of New York anticipates the loss of tax revenue from Covid-19 to be in the area of $7.4 Billion dollars, of which loss of vehicle related revenues must figure.

However, with more than 37,000 motor vehicle related deaths each year and a shortage of professional truck drivers looming, autonomous vehicle technology holds significant promise in improving the lives of Americans.

While the Professional truck driver is the number #1 job in 29 states, the driver shortage along with the physical and mental burden of long haul driving is taking its toll on the industry. Autonomous vehicles may not replace the driver but can create a “hybrid” driver between the technology and the driving professional, reducing distracted driving and likely increasing hours of service, allowing the driver to operate on the roadway longer than regulations currently allow.

No matter how much of an improvement there will be economic consequences that in turn will have political implications. The will of the elected to act – and quickly – in a way that least impacts the everyday driver and the public at large.

Possibly moving away from infraction revenue used to bolster government budgets. Or weaning State Motor Vehicle agencies from tying non-motor vehicle behavior to driver’s license suspensions. Exploring the adoption of infrastructure revenue streams that do not rely on State Motor Vehicle revenue alone. Or mandates on autonomous vehicle OEMs as well as after-market autonomous technology manufacturers that require revenue sharing with communities that they test or operate in.

There is probably no better time than now to strategize the Political Economy of Autonomous Vehicles.

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