Can Philanthropy Help Cities Find the Right Role for Driverless Vehicles?

A self-driving car at a traffic light in Silicon valley. Sundry Photography /shutterstock

A self-driving car at a traffic light in Silicon valley. Sundry Photography /shutterstock

It’s becoming a familiar scenario: A tech company introduces a new, disruptive technology to cities around the country—Airbnb, Uber, electric scooters, etc.—and depending on the local officials, they either get mostly free reign, or a battle ensues between the private and public sectors. 

Meanwhile, these technologies have real impacts on the daily lives of the people who call these places home. Isn’t there a way to decide collectively how we put these innovations to use? 

That’s the idea behind a new initiative from the Knight Foundation addressing one of the most transformative new technologies to hit communities in recent history—the autonomous vehicle. The foundation is giving $5.25 million across five cities to make residents central in the planning processes of local self-driving vehicle projects. 

It could be the beginnings of a new niche for philanthropy, amplifying public interest in fast-moving decisions around driverless vehicles. But as Knight tackles this issue, and if other funders take an interest, it will be important to place the equity and climate implications front and center.

Knight’s initiative will be funding pilot projects designed to engage local residents in decisions concerning self-driving vehicles in ways that go beyond town halls or surveys. It’s part of the foundation’s national focus on Smart Cities, the use of digital technology to improve the way communities function. 

The project is one example of a promising use of philanthropy that Knight is fond of—giving a boost to democracy at the local level, in this case by expanding the public engagement process. Autonomous vehicles are a particularly important and pressing topic demanding this kind of attention, as around 80 cities are hosting or committed to hosting AV pilots, and another 30 are planning them. Things are moving fast, and we’ve also seen corporate giving and university partnerships emerging to accelerate the technology.


Many city governments are underprepared for the changes autonomous vehicles could bring, and there are serious concerns that the technology will negatively impact issues like traffic congestion, vehicle miles traveled, energy use, public transit funding, and sprawl. On the other hand, they could also deliver great benefits, a dichotomy Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase has described as potential “heaven and hell” trajectories. Debate over self-driving vehicles escalated earlier this year when a self-driving vehicle killed a pedestrian in Arizona, a state lenient in regulating companies developing the technology.

“Important conversations are happening among government and industry on what these changes mean for the future, but residents have largely been left from the table. Without their input, we risk designing cities for new kinds of cars, rather than for people,” said Lilian Coral, Knight Foundation director for national strategy and technology innovation, in the announcement.

The projects receiving funding vary, but all aim to foster community engagement, to use technology to understand local needs, and establish best practices, according to Knight. Examples include Miami’s exploration of driverless shuttles as an alternative to fixed-route buses, or San Jose’s efforts to integrate driverless vehicles with other forms of transit to serve downtown jobs, retail and nightlife. 

Again, this could be a good role for philanthropy, similar to the way some funders have embraced the ethics of AI as a topic that could easily be overlooked by the private sector. Supercharging the public comment process is also a useful strategy for local funders, a way to increase government capacity for important planning processes that sometimes get a rubber stamp.

Knight’s approach is often one of trying to “help communities discover their own right answers,” which is a worthy pursuit. But when it comes to self-driving cars, one criticism here is that it would be great to see a more explicit, centered emphasis on both equity and climate impacts. These issues are certainly in the mix, as Long Beach’s pilot project involves emissions reductions, Pittsburgh’s involves reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips, and Coral has pointed out that all of the projects emphasize outreach to underserved communities.

But even if cities come up with innovative self-driving vehicle projects that serve local needs, it’s all too common for low-income and marginalized communities to be overlooked and negatively impacted by new technology and infrastructure in cities. And given that the transportation sector has become our largest source of CO2 emissions, driverless cars will play a critical role in climate change, our biggest problem. 

There’s a huge need to approach autonomous vehicles through the lenses of equity and climate change. Philanthropy, whether Knight or additional funders, could step up, here.