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Xantha Bruso: Developing autonomous vehicle policy strategies to advance safety while enabling innovation

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Tuesday, May 21 2019

Fellows: 

As the policy manager for autonomous vehicle policy at AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah, Fellow Xantha Bruso is developing and implementing AAA’s AV policy strategy to advance AV safety while enabling innovation. She also supports strategic initiatives to accelerate AV deployment and foster mobility solutions.

AAA’s goal is to support the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs) “the same way it supported the safety of the first generation of cars one hundred years ago,” says Bruso.

AAA sees the great promise of these vehicles for reducing congestion, promoting sharing, increasing the adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles, and offering new forms of mobility. AAA sees its value as an independent third party that can help assess safety, encourage collaboration among technology companies, and organize convenings to share information on safety performance. On the consumer side, AAA wants to support consumer education about and help build confidence in the various levels of autonomy available.

Mainly, says Bruso, AAA wants to make sure the road to AV usage is safe for everyone.

“We have a very strong regulatory framework for testing human-driven vehicles and their drivers,”says Bruso, but almost no system for regulating the software that controls AVs, which is the equivalent of a human driver. While there is federal guidance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), including recommendations and suggestions for AV manufacturers on what data they should disclose, none of it is binding.

Personally, Bruso was attracted to the work because of her ongoing interest in climate change. Before moving to AAA, Bruso worked at California utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for more than twelve years, ultimately as the company’s manager for climate policy and analysis.

“One thing that could really move the needle on climate change would be a solution that both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and offers significant cost savings. AVs and electric vehicles have that potential. If we can make it convenient and affordable for people to use electric vehicles and share rides, and choose options like scooters, public transportation, biking and walking, well, that is a vision I’d like to see realized,” says Bruso.

On the way to that future, however, she acknowledges there are a myriad of issues to resolve.

First is the large number of potential issues of concern with connected cars. These include everything from their intrusiveness into user privacy (knowing their occupants’ whereabouts) to their potential vulnerability to cyber attacks, not to mention the ramifications of simple glitches in the software that controls their movement.

Even defining safety standards is a huge problem for vehicles that need to conform to current federal rules. For example, how do you regulate safety in a vehicle that doesn’t require a steering wheel or brake pedal because there isn’t a human driving it? General Motors has a petition before NHTSA right now to put a driverless car without either device on public roads. Another company, Nuro, which uses self-driving vehicles for goods delivery, is petitioning to be exempted from using windshields, since their vehicles do not even have human occupants.

Because there are so many unanswered questions, Bruso says there are incredible opportunities for urban planners to work on policy at every level of government. Planners need to understand how the technology works in order to figure out how to accommodate and optimize it. Parking design will almost certainly be transformed, and even siting recharging infrastructure could alter the planning process.

Regardless, she acknowledges that the sustained rollout of AVs will present technological and societal challenges, disruptions to the workforce, and difficult conversations about policy.

Bruso says these questions will only grow in importance as the United States sees a sustained increase in electric vehicle (EV) adoption. Although EVs and AVs are not synonymous now, she believes within ten years they will be closer to it. We will also see more AVs go from testing to small deployments, and more growth in the trucking and delivery arenas, she predicts.

Bruso acknowledges that AVs could contribute to increased urban sprawl as people opt to let their cars do the driving, so to speak, and move further out from urban areas. This would be bad for the environment, quality of life, and more. Making sure these negative consequences do not become a reality requires setting up policies to address them ahead of time, says Bruso, and will require some difficult conversations in which she is ready to engage.

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