Impact of self-driving cars in the Lehigh Valley could be profound

Brian Pedersen//December 7, 2017

Impact of self-driving cars in the Lehigh Valley could be profound

Brian Pedersen//December 7, 2017

What that means for transportation in our region became the topic of what will be many conversations about self-driving vehicles at Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s “Future LV Big Ideas. Bold Conversation” event at Lehigh University in Bethlehem on Wednesday.

The nation has enjoyed a predictable trajectory of transportation with the automobile as the decades have passed.

Now, a new paradigm will shift the way people get around as self-driving cars gain traction. Experts on a panel moderated by Owen O’Neil, executive director of Lehigh-Northampton Transportation Authority, shared their thoughts on how automated vehicles could affect everything from how people commute to work to the construction and planning of city and suburban environments.

Traditional manufacturers started with “baby steps” in automation, introducing such technology as cruise control. By 2025 is when many say we will have fully automated vehicles, said Stephen Buckley, northeast regional manager for the planning, environment and traffic practices at WSP USA, an engineering company.

Gaining consumer acceptance is another factor, as many adults cannot drive.

“Does government support how this unfolds? This is currently being driven by the private sector,” Buckley said. “I believe there is a role for government.”


A transportation network has to meet the demands of the population, O’Neil said.

What this means for automated vehicles is additional opportunities for seniors and people with disabilities to get around, panelists said.

The senior population is rising, and seniors have a slightly different need for transportation, said Cassaundra Amato, a philanthropy professional with the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.

No one wants to begin the difficult conversation of telling his or her aging parents that they should stop driving. On the positive end, automated vehicles could give older people greater freedoms, she noted.

“But we need to make sure we invest in different technology,” Amato said.


As an example, seniors could need technology that provides larger fonts and other accessible features. Teaching seniors how to use the technology could help them become more comfortable with the technology, she added.

“I am excited about the advances in transportation,” said Amy Beck, executive director for the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living in Allentown. “One of the greatest obstacles for people with disabilities is poverty. If people have enough money to afford those expensive vehicles, more people with disabilities would work.”

Automation could have many advantages for public transportation, such as more frequent trips with fewer or no drivers, said Will Calves, a senior transit planner and project manager at AECOM, an international engineering company. With the built environment, planners will have to determine how automated vehicles interact with pedestrians and cyclists, he added.

“It’s been a pretty predictable transportation paradigm that’s about to change,” Calves said.


Automation also will greatly affect planning and how future developments are shaped.

“Our suburbs are actually densifying, so they are adding more people and more buildings on a smaller scale,” said Becky Bradley, executive director of LVPC.

E-commerce also is further eroding the physical retail landscape and that, too, could lead to reuse of empty retail spaces as drop-off areas for automated vehicles.

“We buy more online,” Bradley said. “We don’t need as much retail square footage. We are going to need a lot of drop-off areas for autonomous vehicles.”

Bradley also said automated vehicles will bring fewer accidents. When human mistakes are taken out of the equation, roads will be safer and possibly made narrower. Continuous widening of highways is not feasible, she added.


Since the impact is unknown, many are grappling with how people will respond once automated vehicles become more commonplace.

“There will be fear,” Beck said. “I think there is still an element of surprise.”

As an example, she said a blind person walking with a service dog in an intersection often does not hear smart cars since they have quieter motors.

“I’m still an optimist; I have to believe technology will make us safer,” Beck said. “One of my greatest hopes is that no significant portion of our population will be forgotten. We need people of all diverse backgrounds at the table in planning for the future.”


The conversion period for adopting the technology will be messy, even though travel will become more predictable and more comfortable, Buckley said.

“We are one of the proving grounds for automated vehicles,” Bradley said, referring to Pennsylvania. “We are almost in the early Wild West of automation.”

The event also featured several panel discussions throughout the day, including keynote speaker Peter Leyden, founder and CEO of Reinvent in California and former managing editor of Wired magazine.

Bradley also introduced DataLV, the details of the LVPC’s comprehensive plan, a work in progress available at the organization’s website.