By Jordan Ferguson.

It sounds like the future, but it is right around the corner. For decades, driverless cars were reserved to the realm of science fiction, a practically unimaginable leap forward that would change the ways we think about transportation and technology. Yet, over the past few years, it has become clear that not only are driverless cars, and the massive changes they will bring with them plausible, they are likely to be a reality in the next few years. With several companies — including Google, Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Tesla, Volvo, Ford and Uber —developing autonomous vehicle technology that, in many cases, is already being tested, public agencies can no longer afford to take a wait-and-see approach. Rather, they need to become proactive in considering, developing and implementing an approach to incorporate autonomous vehicles into their transportation networks.

Several states, including California, Michigan, Nevada, Florida and Tennessee, have laws addressing autonomous vehicles — and the opportunity for growth will likely push other states to follow shortly. At the federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is engaged in ongoing regulatory interpretations, as well as developing operational guidelines and model policies for states and local governments. Those policies are expected to be released mid-summer. The Department of Transportation is also looking to promulgate regulations and model policies that will facilitate the transition to full autonomous vehicles operating on public roads and integrating into our mainstream transportation systems. In California, the Department of Motor Vehicles released draft autonomous vehicle deployment regulations in December, and is moving forward with the rulemaking procedure. The development and implementation of autonomous vehicle regulations at the state and federal level present a unique opportunity for local governments to get involved in this process, and to make their voices heard.

Other interests are certainly seizing on this opportunity. Automobile and technology heavy weights Google, Ford, Volvo, Uber and Lyft jointly created the Self Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group that will work with both policy makers and the public to promote autonomous driving technology. Meanwhile, lobbying group Securing America’s Future Energy has unveiled proposals on driverless cars, aimed at incentivizing use of electric vehicles to reduce oil consumption. While these coalitions are framed as being focused on promoting the safety and environmental advantages of driverless cars, they will also work to convince lawmakers how to think about and regulate (or decline to regulate) autonomous vehicles. These coalitions’ formations indicate how quickly the conversation on autonomous vehicles is shifting into high gear. Of note to local regulators, both coalitions have expressed concern over allowing a “patchwork quilt” of regulations to develop, and have expressed preference for uniform federal rules that may, if executed, exclude local regulators from engaging on these issues and ensuring their interests are considered and protected.

Interested parties, including local and regional government agencies, should consider participating in some or all of these ongoing rulemaking proceedings and regulatory efforts. The California DMV, for example, will open up a 45-day comment period later this year to allow agencies and individuals to present opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of its regulations, and to argue for what changes should be made. Organizations including the Auto Club, Ford, NHTSA, the City of Los Angeles, Google and various others representing seniors and the disabled, have already submitted comments as part of two public workshops the DMV held earlier this year.

Autonomous vehicles have the ability to change virtually every aspect of our lives. From a regulatory standpoint, driverless cars are likely to affect everything from transportation planning and infrastructure to land use, congestion, parking, and even mass transit options. Local and regional government agencies must expect that autonomous vehicles will radically reshape our roads and the places they will take us. They must be prepared to handle these changes, and to adapt to a dynamic and fast-evolving sector that will bring with it massive shifts, and also enormous opportunities. And they must stand up for their interests, preserving their right to regulate and participate in the development and implementation of regulations that will affect life in their jurisdictions. Don’t be drowned out by the roar of engines racing to have their vision of the future enshrined into law.

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Ferguson_Jordan-c1Jordan Ferguson is an associate in Best Best & Krieger’s Los Angeles office. A member of the Municipal Law and Special Districts practice groups, Ferguson is well-versed in the issues of emerging technologies and the sharing economy, conflicts of interest, free speech regulations, privacy rights, the Brown Act, public safety regulations and elections law matters. He can be reached at