As AVs trickle onto city streets, public leaders should set the rules of the road—before the industry does.

In the middle of the 20th century, brilliant marketing by the American auto industry helped convince the federal government to build the interstate highways on the public dime, lancing cities and stringing them like jewels on an asphalt strand.

Eighty years later, the next automotive revolution is turning from an “if” to a “when,” with huge implications for urban life. Top auto manufacturers promise fully autonomous vehicles by 2021. Self-driving Ubers already rove the streets of Pittsburgh, Tempe, and San Francisco, and a wave of robo-test rides is coming to Phoenix, courtesy of Waymo.

Auto industry and tech leaders promise that autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will expand mobility, slash accidents, ease congestion, and rejigger Americans’ default preference towards personal car ownership—even as the question of whether people really want these cars has been largely set aside. So far, conversations between government and automakers have been about how to regulate these vehicles and share the data that comes out of them. Eventually, talk will turn to the infrastructure required to achieve the full suite of supposed benefits from AVs—and how the public is going to pay for it all. 

After all, self-driving cars aren’t being designed to simply replace our existing jalopies. Fully connected vehicles are supposed to communicate with each other andthe driving environment