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Driving Equity: The Benefits and Impact of Autonomous Vehicles on Underserved Communities

As autonomous vehicles (AVs) begin to shape the future of transportation in U.S. cities, thoughtful policy considerations, industry commitments, and strategic investments are vital to upholding American leadership and maximizing the benefits of this technology while addressing challenges and concerns, particularly for underserved communities.

This report examines how multi-stakeholder led efforts can ensure AVs as a ride-hailing service integrate into urban communities responsibly and equitably. Widespread AV adoption holds significant potential benefits. Proactive collaboration among policymakers, local communities, industry leaders, and researchers is necessary to ensure that the technology leads to a more accessible, safe, clean, and efficient future.

Given the rapid pace of advancement in AV technology, our policy considerations are designed to be flexible and adaptable to future developments. Our analysis and recommendations focus on the use of AVs in ride-hailing services within urban centers, and reflect the current operational scale and available research. Further studies will need to evaluate a more expansive use of AVs as a ride-hailing service.

Key Findings:

  • Inclusive AV Adoption and Access: AVs have the potential to improve transportation equity by expanding access and opportunities for all riders. AVs promise to provide rides to everyone regardless of age, language, disability, and other factors. However, there are hurdles to overcome, such as affordability, limited technical familiarity, and concerns related to fairness and discrimination. General acceptance of AVs will require government, industry, and community stakeholders to work together to harness the benefits of AVs. Transparency and trust in the technology can create a more inclusive transportation landscape that benefits everyone.
  • Public Transportation and Urban Planning: Integrating AVs into existing public transit networks and complementing paratransit systems could improve transportation equity, especially for underserved communities and people with disabilities. Several pilot programs and public-private partnerships offer valuable insights into the potential benefits and challenges of incorporating AVs into urban transportation networks. These programs highlight the need for careful planning and collaboration to maximize the equity and efficiency of mobility solutions.
  • Safety: AVs could make the nation’s roads and sidewalks safer by removing the human driver from the equation and using advanced automated safety features. Widespread access to safer transportation might require investments in roadway testing and creating shared safety standards. Policymakers must engage with a wide range of stakeholders to gain diverse perspectives to address their unique needs; such dialogue will also build trust in the technology.
  • Emissions and Electrification: Most AVs run on electric or hybrid power. Through electrification and smart design elements, AVs show considerable potential to increase energy efficiency and reduce pollution. This is especially crucial for underserved communities disproportionately affected by environmental pollution. However, the complexity of these issues and specific localized energy and environmental effects require nuanced understanding and approaches. Investments in clean energy infrastructure and sustainable and equitable policy frameworks are critical in making AVs part of a cleaner, more inclusive future.

This paper underscores the importance of implementing tailored solutions to unlock the full potential of AVs and to benefit underserved communities, prioritizing their unique needs and creating transportation equity.


Corey Harper is an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Heinz School of Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University. Lesley Jantarasami, Managing Director of the Energy Program, and Meron Tesfaye, former Senior Policy Analyst with the BPC Energy Program provided substantial contributions and assistance throughout this report development process. This report was supported by Waymo. The findings expressed here do not necessarily reflect its views.

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