Engineering Innovations
Engineering Innovation

Preparing for the Arrival of Autonomous Vehicles

Lauren Isaac
Lauren Isaac

[Editor’s Note: Lauren Isaac, WSP USA's manager of sustainable transportation and project manager for the San Francisco Bay Area’s 511 Regional Rideshare Program, is also the 2015 William Barclay Parsons Fellow. As such, she is studying the role of government agencies—federal, state, and local—in regulating automated vehicles.]

Autonomous vehicles, also referred to as driverless cars or self-driving cars, are capable of sensing their environment and navigating roads without human input. They rely on technologies like GPS, LIDAR and radar to read their surroundings and make intelligent decisions about the car’s direction and speed.

As part of my research for the William Barclay Parsons fellowship, I am developing a “how-to guide” that outlines the role of government in autonomous cars and presents information local and regional governments need to inform planning and decision-making – both now and in the future.

Driverless Cars


Car of the Future

The potential impact of autonomous vehicles on society is vast, with both positive and negative implications. Generally, public safety is the largest positive impact cited – with the potential elimination of 90 percent of automobile accidents that are caused by human error. Other potential positive impacts include: more efficient land use, reduced parking requirements, and improved mobility for the elderly, disabled, and youth.

Potential negative impacts include: increased vehicle miles travelled, which could increase road congestion and travel times; increased urban sprawl; and job loss in certain sectors.

Google, Uber, every major auto maker, and other organizations are investing significantly in the advancement of autonomous technology. In fact, automakers and technology developers are estimating that autonomous cars will be available between 2018 and 2020.

However, there are other factors that will influence the autonomous car timeline, including human adoption, government regulation, the need for industry standards, and insurance industry adjustments. Researchers believe that autonomous cars will not be ubiquitous on our roads until 2025 – 2030.

Most research papers and news reports regarding autonomous cars focus on the technological advancement or implications for society (e.g., improved safety and greater mobility for elderly and disabled). Many articles cite the importance of government regulation; however, very few provide targeted guidance on how government agencies should respond.

Growing Awareness

As I’ve traveled around the country speaking at industry conferences, I have found that most government officials are not aware of how soon autonomous cars are coming or the impact they will have on our cities. While very few local governments are investing resources into autonomous vehicle planning now, they will have to prepare for its arrival in the next few years.

The goal of my research is to educate government agencies about autonomous vehicles now, and to help our clients leverage the firm’s consulting services regarding land use planning, travel demand forecasting, long-range strategic and financial planning, transit advisory services, infrastructure impacts … and the list goes on.

Driving Towards Driverless

Over the past year, I have been researching the state of the technology and tracking how governments around the world have been responding to autonomous vehicles. I have also shared my findings to date at conferences and in industry publications.

However, the most effective way I engage people with my research has been through my blog, Driving Towards Driverless, in which I share what I have discovered through my research on autonomous vehicles. I invite you to visit my blog, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

I plan to complete my “how-to guide” and make it publicly available in the fall of 2015, and I’m looking forward to working with local and regional governments as they respond to autonomous vehicles.

To learn more about WSP services that support the planning, deployment and maintenance of intelligent transportation systems and connected and automated vehicle projects across the U.S., visit

connected vehicle, Somerville, test site, Audi, US department of transportation

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Planet M Tests Connected Vehicles on Michigan Highway


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