Ian Adams: Let’s Remove the Barriers to Autonomous Mobility

Recently, I spoke with Ian Adams of the R Street Institute about the Institute’s work on fuel economy and especially autonomous mobility. I was inspired to contact Ian after I read a thought-provoking op-ed in The Hill about fuel economy, which I asked him about in the interview. He also wrote another interesting op-ed in the same publication about autonomous mobility. You can listen or download the podcast below or listen to it in ITunes.

The R Street Institute will be hosting a forum on April 14 from 12-1:30 p.m. EDT on “Trump’s Approach to the Future of the Fuel Economy and Emissions Regulation– And Some Alternatives,” which will include speakers from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Grace Richardson Institute and the Pacific Research Institute.

On Ian’s Proposal to Deal with Fuel Economy:

“The idea for the op-ed really came from sort of a place of relative naiveté, as listeners can pick up from my bio. It’s not as though I have a deep background in this. I’ve just always been interested in cars, so I’ve followed CAFE [corporate average fuel economy]. I’ve followed the one national program. I’ve followed just this increasingly labyrinth approach to both emissions and fuel economy regulation. The program just seemed to me to really overcomplicate things because if you’re a free marketer, what you want to see are incentives aligned correctly. The idea with a supply side solution is to not punish those who pollute or fail to hit a standard. You could base this on fuel economy efficiency or you could base this on emissions. It doesn’t really matter how you set the target. What matters is how regulated entities interact with that target because when the target is used to punish entities, the target begins to act as both a floor and a ceiling, right? There are no economic incentives, few economic incentives to really do better than that target, whereas if you move to a supply-side solution that allows companies and regulated entities to be rewarded for over compliance with a given target, then they really have a business reason to make more efficient vehicles.”

On the Clean Tax Cut:

“The R Street Institute has been working with this organization, the Grace Richardson Fund to look at an idea called Clean Tax Cut. The thought is, be it in the automotive sector, be it in energy production, even in finance with bonds, you can add tax cut supply side drivers to encourage more efficient behavior. Some prefer to call it greener behavior, but at the end of the day, what we’re seeking here is efficiency to drive down costs for consumers and the economy as a whole. It is new and it is revolutionary and we haven’t run all the numbers yet, but it is something where it just seemed like it was time to start having this discussion because we’re at a really interesting point with the Trump Administration addressing these issues to have the conversation. That was the idea.”

On Autonomous Mobility:

“I think ultimately the winners of the [autonomous mobility] race will be those of us who actually have an opportunity to operate and ride in the vehicles. That was sort of my starting point in coming to this. Here we are, the wealthiest country in the world and we’ve just sort of accepted roughly 40,000 deaths a year on our roads, that that number is somehow acceptable. The number collisions, the number of accidents is far higher and the cost in terms of civil liability on top of it all is greater still. This just struck me as an area where there is a straightforward technological solution that is waiting in the wings to be deployed and yet, there are some legacy regulatory barriers standing in its way. That’s how R Street got engaged in the project, how I got engaged in the project.


I worked in the California legislature at a time when the state decided to pass legislation to give the California DMV authority to begin regulating this technology. The folks backing the legislation at the time thought it was necessary to allow these vehicles on the road. There’s some question about that, but that’s ancient history because now we’ve got states off to the races in attempting to regulate these vehicles and we’ve got the federal government, the NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], on the other side also looking to regulate these vehicles.


It’s been a really very interesting road to travel down as NHTSA has opted to offer non-binding guidance and the states have, since its start, over regulated, as California proposed to do in drafting regulations saying these vehicles have to have a steering wheel. Other states have gone other directions to be very, very permissive, like for instance, Nevada. Our work has been focused on trying to ensure that regulators don’t inadvertently quash the development and deployment of the technology. For instance, in Massachusetts right now, there’s a bill pending that would tax autonomous vehicles on a per-mile basis. Now, I can’t think of a much worse incentive for the deployment of the technology.”

On the Environmental Benefits of Autonomous Mobility:

“You’ll have autonomous vehicles that are following within inches of one another, so they don’t have the same drag coefficient as they’re going down the road and we’re not going to have to use as much power to move those vehicles as a result. There will be net efficiency benefits that we enjoy almost right off of the bat, to say nothing of the fact that with ride sharing, vehicles will be utilized more fully. More of the time, they’ll be on the road. They’ll be picking people up and they’ll just be used a lot more. As a result, you won’t have a bunch of metal sitting around unused, which will also have a positive impact on the environment. It is a huge part of it and as you say, with electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles are really well positioned to take advantage of electric vehicle technology.


GM is obviously a big believer in that as a big time investor in Lyft and their new Chevy Bolts that are coming out with the 230 odd miles of range. There’s a reason that they’re using that vehicle as their autonomous vehicle platform because once these vehicles have exhausted their charge, they’re able to go seek another charge and get back on the road as soon as possible. They can do it on their own. All right? They don’t have to worry about any of the logistical challenges associated with autonomous fueling involving liquid. It is really exciting and I think you’re right. Obviously, the death toll is attention grabbing, but we shouldn’t lose track of the environmental benefits either.”


Tammy Klein is a consultant and strategic advisor providing market and policy intelligence and analysis on transportation fuels to the auto and oil industries, governments, and NGOs. She writes and advises on petroleum fuels, biofuels, alternative fuels, automotive fuels, and fuels policy.