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Heinz College Students Craft Autonomous Vehicle Policies for the City of Pittsburgh

By Scott Barsotti

Crafting policy for autonomous vehicles is complicated. Recently, a class of Carnegie Mellon University students spent a weekend doing just that, and will send their recommendations to the mayor’s office.

Any policy change is complex, but some are even stickier than others. That’s certainly true of autonomous vehicles, the very existence of which is thrusting policymakers into uncharted territory. The deployment of autonomous vehicles has impacts not only on mobility and labor, but on infrastructure, parking, policing, insurance, shipping, the environment, energy, public health…the list goes on. A disruption that will impact society across such a broad area of concerns is uniquely challenging to craft policy for.

Over a chilly February weekend, more than 30 Carnegie Mellon University students packed into a classroom with CMU faculty and Pittsburgh civic leaders to discuss and devise new autonomous vehicle policy recommendations. The most compelling outcomes from the weekend will be presented to the city for consideration.

Driverless cars are a hot topic across the world, but in Pittsburgh they’re already a fact of life. Take a stroll through certain city neighborhoods, and you’re all but guaranteed to see a driverless Uber cruising down the street, an engineer in the captain’s seat with arms confidently folded. Argo AI—Ford’s autonomous division—has deployed its cars in town as well, and numerous other companies and startups have set up shop to develop their own technologies, cementing Pittsburgh as the autonomous vehicles capital of the U.S.

The testing and roll-out of driverless vehicles has huge implications for the city, and the eventuality of it is something that city officials need to grapple with. But the actual policy on this issue is still fairly thin and under-developed. CMU students—being uniquely situated at the birthplace of autonomous vehicles—want to change that.

The weekend-long course, which was hosted by Heinz College, assembled the students, Heinz leadership, faculty, and expert guests from local and regional government, transportation, development, and planning organizations for two full days, with the goal of creating policy recommendations that were collaborative, comprehensive, and able to be implemented.

(To get a sense of how big an issue this is and CMU’s clout in the conversation, just take a look at the roster of top minds our students got to engage with during the weekend.)

Stan Caldwell, Executive Director of CMU’s Traffic21 Research Institute, told the students, “This is the biggest disruption in transportation in over 100 years since the advent of the motorized vehicle,” said Caldwell, “You have the ability to impact the mayor’s thinking on an important policy issue. Elected officials don’t have the kind of time we have this weekend.” 

The groups focused on the effect of autonomous vehicle traffic on Pittsburgh’s Central Business District (CBD). Sean Luther, Executive Director of InnovatePGH and Envision Downtown, and one of the leaders who consulted on the weekend, called Pittsburgh’s CBD “one of the most economically productive square miles anywhere in the United States,” which means the introduction of autonomous vehicles will present many-faceted challenges that affect both commuters and commerce.

“We’re already seeing a battle between parking, loading, accessibility, freight, and transit in downtown and the CBD,” said Luther.

The presence of city and county officials allowed the students some insight into their agencies’ capabilities and processes as they discussed their ideas. In addition to autonomous vehicles, the discussions touched on the effects of transportation networking companies (e.g. Uber, Lyft), the electrification of vehicles, and advanced wireless technology and how it impacts the transportation sector.

“Transportation itself is changing. It’s not just a question of building bridges and re-paving roads. It’s focusing on mobility and moving people, not just vehicles,” said Alex Pazuchanics (MPM '17), a Heinz College alumnus who is now Assistant Director of Planning, Policy, and Permitting for the City of Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. Pazuchanics was a key city official present for the course, and provided a breakdown of the city’s goals and existing smart cities efforts.

The organizing team will be selecting the top policy recommendations that emerged from the weekend and presenting them to the office of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in April.


Consequences of Autonomous Vehicles

Hosted by the Heinz College of Information Systems & Policy

Guest experts:

Matt Barron
Program Officer for Sustainability, Heinz Endowments
Board Member, Pittsburgh Parking Authority

Roger Cohen
Policy Director, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

Stan Caldwell
Executive Director, Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic21 Institute and University Transportation Centers

Don Carter
Director, Remaking Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

David Danks
Department Head & L.L. Thurstone Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University

Sean Luther
Executive Director, InnovatePGH
Executive Director, Envision Downtown

David Onorato, CAPP
Executive Director, Pittsburgh Parking Authority

Alex Pazuchanics (MPM ’17)
Assistant Director of Planning, Policy, and Permitting, City of Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure

Sean Qian
Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Director, CMU Mobility Analytics Center

Costa Samaras
Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

Merrill Stable
President, Alco Parking Corporation

David Wohlwill, AICP
Program Manager of Long-Range Planning, Port Authority of Allegheny County


Organizing team:

Rick Stafford
Service Professor of Public Policy, Heinz College
Former Director of CMU’s Metro21 and Traffic21 initiatives

Jackie Speedy
Associate Dean, School of Public Policy & Management at Heinz College

Al Biehler
Professor of Transportation Policy, Carnegie Mellon University
Former Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation 

Tejas Bisen
Teaching Assistant