Opinion: Driverless cars are the future, but Ga. law could delay it

Those of us who called Atlanta home in 1990 — when the world’s great cities openly mocked our bid to host the Centennial Olympic Games as a threadbare offering from a ramshackle town — recognize a similar stirring across our city today.

Then as now, something transformative is underway, and the pace of it is almost staggering.

But for all the promise of tomorrow, all the landscape-altering developments and the renewed investments in technology, there still remains transcendent, unresolved threats to Atlanta’s future, like the constellation of red lights that illuminate its roadways each and every evening.

Atlanta can blot out the sun with high rise dwellings, but what if no one can — or would want to — fill them?

Between 2010 and 2015, Atlanta’s millennial population saw only negligible growth, according to data from the Urban Land Institute, while cities like San Antonio, San Diego, Miami, Baltimore, and Houston notched double digit growth.

Why? In a word: transportation. If we don’t address now in earnest the structural hurdles — namely, our infamously terrible traffic grid — that are depressing Millennial interest in the city, our new glimmering skyline will be nothing more than an empty husk of steel and glass.

To our advantage in this challenge, though, the global transportation paradigm, like our city, is on the precipice of possible radical change, and in that change may be the answer to our unique traffic woes.

Roboticists have predicted that children born this year will never manually control a vehicle, while other forecasts have predicted that 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles will be traveled in fleets of autonomous, electric vehicles by the year 2030. In that same year, a separate estimate predicts that more than 10 million autonomous vehicles will be cruising American roads.

These autonomous vehicles will be as radically different from the first internal combustion engines as those models were from horse-drawn carriages: not only will they lack conventional controls to manipulate speed and direction, but so too will they lack conventional petro-fueled engines.

General Motors, the world’s largest auto manufacturer, will introduce two new electric models within the next 18 months, and pledged this fall to sell more than 20 unique all-electric models (a varied line-up of battery-powered and hydrogen fuel-cell-powered) by 2023. For perspective, GM today generates the majority of its revenue from the sale of large gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and trucks.

Elsewhere in the country and the world, responsible legislative bodies are taking proactive measures to shape public policy in a manner that would expedite and nurture this important paradigm shift to autonomous electric transportation.

In California, state lawmakers recently introduced an unprecedented state tax rebate program to incentivize the purchase of electric cars. The United Kingdom just passed a law that will make it illegal to sell internal combustion engines after the year 2040.

Not long ago, Georgia motorists owned the second-greatest share of electric vehicles in the nation, thanks to a well-devised state income tax credit. By 2014, more than 16,000 electric vehicles were cruising Georgia roads, up from the mere 1,700 two years earlier.

The tax credit was working. But this encouraging trend was dramatically reversed when, in 2015, the General Assembly deep-sixed the credit. The move, which not only eliminated the tax credit but created a fee on electric vehicles, precipitated a 90 percent drop in new sales and leases.

Lawmakers have to approach metro Atlanta’s transportation challenge holistically. Reinstating the electric vehicle tax credit would be a good start in making our city in the forest a city of the future.

Eric J. Tanenblatt is chair of public policy for law firm Dentons.

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