Whether you think a proposal to reserve the ribbon of freeway between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. or the Cascadia Corridor, for autonomous vehicles is just pie in the sky or not, it’s certainly ignited discussion around the best way to embrace a technology that appears inevitable.
The bold plan from Tom Alberg, co-founder of Madrona Venture Group, and former Microsoft executive Craig Mundie was released in September at a cross-border innovation conference sponsored by Microsoft.
While the ultimate goal would be banning human drivers altogether from the 150-mile stretch of Interstate 5 during peak travel times, the plan would take a decade to reach that point and would begin by allowing driverless vehicles in carpool lanes. Eventually, human-piloted cars, trucks and buses would be excluded except during times of low traffic congestion – most weekends and 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekdays.
The Madrona report, also authored by Daniel Li and Conner Raikes, urges local, state and federal governments to recognize the numerous benefits of autonomous vehicles, such as their ability to ease congestion, save lives and provide a less-expensive alternative to high-speed rail.
“The proposal that Tom and I wrote up was largely to try to get people thinking not just about the inevitability of it, but that you actually have to be thoughtful about how you’re going to make the transition,” said Mundie, who also served as a science advisor to former President Barack Obama. “Our point is if you believe in autonomous vehicles and what will naturally evolve from that, then the idea of embarking now on trying to put $30 billion toward a 20-year project to build a high-speed train might not be the right thing to do.”
It’s important to get both citizens and policy leaders thinking now about how to best make a graceful transition to a new infrastructure because driverless vehicles are coming more quickly than people expect, he added.
Waymo, Google's spun off autonomous car division, is testing self-driving technology in California and Arizona. Uber has trials underway in Pittsburg and Arizona. BMW announced plans last month to test its self-driving cars in Munich this year. Seattle-based car-sharing companies Car2Go has vowed to incorporate autonomous vehicles into their fleets.
“Tom and Craig have a great vision, but I think part of what you need to do is gain public acceptance through a number of smaller steps that people can relate to at more of a local level,” said Steve Marshall, executive director of the Center for Advanced Transportation (CATES) and Energy Solutions, a local research and development organization.
King County, he said, just took a step in the right direction by purchasing more than 100 battery-powered electric buses from California-based Proterra, which will give the region the largest battery-powered bus fleet in the country.
“They have the beginnings of autonomous features in them already,” Marshall said. “More importantly, they’re cheaper because they don’t use diesel, and because they already have some of the pedestrian-avoidance technology, they’ll be safer as well.”
Exploring additional options
He also has his eye on the Olli, a self-driving vehicle that can carry up to 12 people and is being used on roads in Washington, D.C. and a few other cities. Made by the Maryland-based company Local Motors, creator of the world’s first 3-D printed cars, Olli is equipped with the most advanced vehicle technology.
“It’s more or less what I call a horizontal elevator that goes up to 35 miles per hour,” Marshall explained. “It’s about the size of a couple of elevators put together and runs on a set pathway but not a track. It has rubber tires and is programmed for a certain route, which can be changed.”
He said he can easily see an Olli on a Bellevue route from the transit center past office buildings and down to Bellevue Square, then back down to Bay Street, up past more office buildings and back to the transit center and city hall.
Marshall also likes the idea of ride-sharing companies transitioning from human-driven to driverless vehicles on routes to workplaces that are currently without bus service. “It’s a series of stages. No matter how safe the technology might be, people have to be shown that it’s safe.”
The biggest roadblock for companies wanting to test autonomous vehicles, he said, is public policy acceptance.
“You’re going to run into legislators and others that will want a whole series of fairly stringent guidelines that may actually slow down things that, at least in my view, are going to save lives and make it easier for more people to afford to get where they want to go, particularly low-income people who have been pushed out of the central cities because of high rents and high housing values," Marshall said.
Bellevue is a city that understands the importance of starting now to plan for self-driving vehicles,” said its mayor, John Stokes, who is also acting chair of the Eastside Transportation Partnership. For the past two years, the city has been a sponsor of a transportation innovation conference.
Stokes said he’s excited about the possibilities laid out in the Madrona report. “It’s a way for us to start thinking about what’s going to be instead of waiting to see what happens in other places.”
Some primary concerns are about the legal implications, along with the impact on driving laws, insurance requirements and infrastructure, Stokes said. To help resolve some of these issues, the city has created a high-level position focused on transportation technology and innovation, which it hopes to fill soon.
Additionally, some of the funding created by the passage of Bellevue’s transportation levy, which will yield an estimated $140 million over 20 years, will also be used to prepare the city for driverless vehicles, Stokes said.
“We understand the technology is coming, and coming faster than we think,” he said.