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Obama Gives Bikes and Autonomous Cars a Boost

Bike lanes in DenverBike lanes in Denver
Aisling O'Suilleabhain rides down a new bike lane in Denver on December 03, 2015. These are the first bike lanes in Denver to be protected with a row of parking, which provides an additional buffer between bicycle and vehicle traffic to enhance safety. RJ Sangosti Denver Post via Getty Images

President Barack Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act approving $305 billion in highway and transit spending through 2020.

While the FAST Act is largely a highway funding law, advocates for truckers as well as bicyclists cheered its passage, as the legislation also increases funding for bike lanes and bicycle parking, as well as walking trails. The law allots $835 million annually for biking and pedestrian infrastructure over the next two years, increasing to $850 million annually for the following three years. Although that’s only slightly more than the $834 million those projects currently get, it’s a lot better than nothing—which is what several lawmakers originally proposed with three (unsuccessful) amendments that would have cut bicycle-related funding altogether, according to advocacy organization People for Bikes.

The new law also includes several provisions that could help put more self-driving cars—which companies including Google (GOOG), Audi and Tesla (TSLA) are currently developing—on the road. For example, the FAST Act establishes grants for “advanced transportation and congestion management technologies deployment.” In this category, the law specifically mentions autonomous vehicles, as well as “technologies associated with autonomous vehicles, and other collision avoidance technologies,” as eligible for the grant funding.

Still, some critics said the FAST Act did not go far enough to encourage innovation among self-driving car services—or ride-sharing startups like Uber and Lyft for that matter. “Though daily headlines are filled with an increasing number of stories about autonomous vehicles or shared mobility services changing the landscape of our cities, this bill is virtually silent on both counts,” Transportation for America said in a statement.

On the other hand, autonomous driving proponents might want to be careful what they wish for, as the law hints that more regulation is coming, which could potentially put limits on the makers of self-driving cars. The FAST Act contains a requirement that Government Accountability Office submit a report to Congress in two years that “assesses the status of autonomous transportation technology policy developed by public entities in the United States” and “assesses the organizational readiness of the Department to address autonomous vehicle technology challenges, including consumer privacy protections.”

Congress, it seems, is already thinking past alleviating traffic jams, and envisioning data privacy problems associated with robotic cars.