Resolved: Cities Should Build for Autonomous Vehicles

This is the first in a two-part series by Brent Skorup and Emily Hamilton discussing the future of autonomous vehicle infrastructure.

Technology improvements in the last few years—namely, in computation and mobile broadband networks—have stimulated a small gold rush in autonomous vehicle (AV), connected car, and smart city technologies. Many of these “smart road” applications will supplement AV technology and services. Some smart road applications will look familiar—like auto “infotainment” and video streaming on road trips—but some are novel, like remote-controlled long-haul semi-trucks and location beacons for deliveries. A network’s distance from a car or user matters, but smart road and AV innovators to date have had limited access to important public property closest to cars—roadside rights-of-way. 

Government entities, typically, manage public rights-of-way—the property above and immediately adjacent to roads. Regulators who control public assets need to carefully plan and manage those assets in the face of technology change. Policymakers should promote private innovation in connected cars and smart cities in two ways.

First, city leaders should study and plan for the development of AVs, since AVs will one day be safer and more convenient for most people than traditional cars. Road rules and road infrastructure will need to change to accommodate and accelerate the deployment of AVs.

Second, governments should redirect their substantial federal smart road funds towards “dumb” infrastructure. The federal government and state governments should no longer pick which wireless technologies to install on cars and on roadways. Regulators should instead build passive, long-lasting infrastructure like light poles and utility poles. They can then provide commercial operators access to install devices in the rights-of-way on public infrastructure, where feasible. Most smart road investment made by governments today is unwise, which is why recommendations informed by history and markets are critical.

Why Roadways Require Public Management

It’s worthwhile to explore why governments, not private entities, build and manage roads and roadside infrastructure. As Milton Friedman and Daniel Boorstin once wrote, highway services “have some peculiarities which make it unwise or impossible to leave their provision entirely to free private enterprise.”

Property theorists have deduced some explanations for why public management dominates, and why even free-market theorists like Friedman and Boorstin could not “devise any acceptable general plan fundamentally different in its broad outline from the present system of planning, constructing and operating city streets.” To resolve the holdout problems associated with bargaining with innumerable property owners, government often needs to take control of the property needed for extensive transportation networks.

Transportation networks throughout history—navigable waters, navigable airspace, and roadways—were customarily held in common. Once use increased, specialized rules from the state, and even state control, emerged to improve productive use. Roman engineers, for instance, built not only roads but stone posts every mile marking distance and travel information, as well as traveler waystations about every 20 miles to improve the ease of imperial commerce. Richard Epstein similarly notes that elements of state ownership and control of heavily-trafficked river systems emerged in eighteenth-century England and common law nations like the United States, a development that kept waters navigable and increased commercial activity. In modern times, the mass use of automobiles induced 20th-century governments worldwide to standardize and install stop lights, stop signs, guardrails, road reflectors, and other infrastructure on highways and along the public rights-of-way.

Road Planning for AVs

Just as 20th-century lawmakers worked with auto companies to standardize road construction methods and best practices to accommodate mass car use, today’s lawmakers need to prepare for AVs. Further, AVs will give lawmakers a chance to reassess policy mistakes of the past, like excessive parking spot requirements in urban areas and inefficient road financing. Even at this early stage in AV development, some road use changes are foreseeable. For instance, with AVs and ridesharing, many more auto trips in the future will be pick-up and drop-off. This diminishes the need for dedicated parking lots but increases the need for pick-up spots at places like schools, supermarkets, and airports.

Smart Governments Build Dumb Infrastructure

Public rights-of-way along roads have long supported commercial activity, like electrical utility, phone, and cable TV distribution networks. Smart road networks can be partially built on private property, but newer technologies like “small cells” and 5G devices require much denser networks and access to the public rights-of-way.

Congress has made about $30 billion available annually for state departments of transportation to build smart road infrastructure. Like flies to honey, technology vendors are pitching state DOTs and seeking to become the sole or preferred provider to install wireless devices on roadways and in downtowns. State DOTs must resist the bait. They are overstretched with traditional road maintenance responsibilities and, if they operated smart road devices, would become responsible for managing an unprecedented and huge IT project.

Rather than build (with preferred vendors) wireless networks and devices along roadways, regulators should limit their construction to passive infrastructure along roadways, like light poles, conduit, and utility poles. These rights-of-way construction projects make more sense than IT contracts because quality is easily assessed and the asset is long-lived. Further, dumb infrastructure has significant option value. Passive infrastructure means that if one device maker fails to find a market, the right to use the infrastructure can be transferred to another innovator. Just as no one predicted cellular networks would—after several iterations--spawn smartphone, ridesharing, and homesharing markets decades later, no one knows which smart road applications will develop and which wireless technologies will win the day.


Cities sometimes misread the marketplace and make poor choices about infrastructure investment. This is no reason, however, for planning paralysis. Cities can and should, after studying transportation trends and learning from the past, make evidence-based plans to accommodate AVs and connected car technology. They are the only stakeholders that can accelerate this life-saving and transformative technology though roadway management.

Photo credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images