Talking AVs & VZ: How Autonomous Driving Affects Vision Zero

by Leah Shahum | October 6, 2021 | in News, Webinars

To some, a future with autonomous vehicles (AV) is a promising path to safe streets. To others, it’s a worrisome combination of new and ongoing safety problems. And for most, there are a lot of questions.

That’s why we hosted the September 22 webinar – Exploring the Future of Autonomous Driving & Vision Zero. We want to encourage sharing and learning between AV industry leaders and those of us working on-the-ground for safe mobility in our communities. You can watch the 1-hour webinar here.

We were pleased to be joined by representatives from PAVE (Partners for Automated Vehicle Education) and two leading AV companies: Cruise and Waymo. Our goal was to better inform AV leaders and Vision Zero champions of each others’ safety priorities and explore opportunities for collaboration toward shared safety goals. We recognize that there can be lack of understanding, and even misapprehensions, about these issues, so we hope to identify and build on areas of alignment toward safety on our streets.

As Ed Niedermeyer, Communications Director at PAVE, shared early in the webinar, there is a lot of “hype and confusion” surrounding AVs that can cloud the understanding of what he called the “massive potential” for benefits, including improved safety.

Niedermeyer spoke to the difference between cars and AVs: “This doesn’t have to be just Cars 2.0. We have other opportunities.”

He spoke to the outsized influence that cars have had on public space and in our lives. “Instead of cars setting the agenda and the built environment reflecting that….”, he said. “AVs offer an opportunity to break that cycle and start to think about vehicles as part of the broader system” and address problems that cars have created.

Other key themes discussed during the event include the opportunity to “right-size” vehicles, so that smaller AVs can be used for trips, rather than over-sized vehicles that are more dangerous, especially for people walking and biking. 

And Waymo and Cruise leaders both spoke to the importance of AVs being able to avoid many of today’s dangers on the road. As one panelist explained, AVs never get drowsy, never drive drunk, and never get distracted. Restricting speeds of the vehicles themselves is another clear likely benefit.

There was an emphasis on the potential environmental benefits, as companies such as Cruise are all-electric with a commitment to zero emissions. 

Still, as many webinar participants shared in their questions of panelists, there are big unknowns and some valid concerns about how to prevent simply replacing one type of car trip with another. Questions included: How AVs will do a better job – not just status quo – in improving walking and biking safety. How can these future systems change, not perpetuate, a system long designed for the dominance of cars, taking up precious public space and endangering vulnerable communities? And, ultimately, how can AV companies prove their commitment to safety and to re-shaping cities in positive ways?

As all seemed to agree, there’s much opportunity – and need – to articulate the vision for a better, safer future and to ensure that AV technology is geared for this goal.

We look forward to continuing these conversations to grow knowledge and understanding and exploring ways to collaborate for improved safety. Thanks to PAVE, Waymo, and Cruise for participating. And we encourage readers to check out the full discussion in this recording.

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