Sacramento could be among first to test fleet of self-driving vehicles

By Tony Bizjak – October 26, 2016

Self-driving robot cars will be coming soon to the streets of American cities. Exactly when is uncertain. But Sacramento city transportation officials are taking steps now to be ready when the revolution rolls in.

Sacramento will be among 16 select cites meeting next month to discuss ways to harness new technologies, including autonomous vehicles, as part of a new national study effort called the Smart Cities Collaborative.

“We definitely see the future of autonomous vehicles and want to wrap our arms around it and make sure it is safe and equitable for the city of Sacramento,” city planner Fedolia Harris said. “We want to be at the table. We want to contribute to early discussions. What are the big issues? How does it affect economic development?”

Sacramento has proposed testing self-driving vehicles to take people to light rail stations

Harris is one of several local officials who rode in a Google driverless car along with Google engineers on Interstate 5 between Richards Boulevard and North Natomas during a demonstration last year, and said he came away a bit “freaked out,” but impressed with how well the car did in traffic and how far self-driving vehicle technology has come.

Sacramento city officials made a pitch earlier this year to the federal Department of Transportation for a major grant to allow them to run a pilot program using self-driving shuttle vehicles to pick people up and take them to Sacramento Regional Transit light-rail stations. Sacramento did not win the grant. Columbus, Ohio, did with a similar proposal that included using autonomous cars as shuttles.

But the city’s bid caught the attention of Transportation 4 America, a group of businesses, nonprofit groups and local elected leaders, and Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company that seeks to use technology to solve urban problems.

Those two entities are sponsoring the Smart Cities Collaborative, which will bring 16 cities together in November to look into ways to test cutting-edge technology to make urban transportation more efficient, including how autonomous vehicles can be used to enhance public transit, reduce congestion, and provide equitable, affordable mobility for various income groups.

Other cities include Austin, Texas; Denver; Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Los Angeles; Nashville, Tenn.; Portland, Ore.; and San Jose. The 16 were among more than 70 cities that had competed for the federal grant ultimately won by Columbus. Transportation For America spokesman Russ Brooks said his organization worked with Sacramento and other cities on their proposals for that DOT grant and were impressed with how eager the cities were to understand and take advantage of new technology to reduce congestion. They decided to set up the collaborative to give those cities a platform for exploring and sharing.

Sacramento officials noted the city is well positioned to be a leader in testing and supporting technological improvements for traffic because it is home to the California Legislature. “If we (put) demonstration projects in the ground, it is a way for legislators to see it up close and personal,” Harris said.

Sacramento’s initial proposal earlier this year involved using lower-speed autonomous vehicles, each capable of carrying a handful of people, as shuttles between neighborhoods and a handful of light-rail stations. Users could summon the vehicles via smartphone app. Studies show that most people are willing to walk up to a half mile to get to a light-rail or bus stop. But in Sacramento’s low-density, suburban communities, most potential light-rail riders live farther than a half mile from a station.

“Some folks may be a little weirded out by a vehicle with no driver in it,” said city traffic official Ryan Moore at the time, but “we think this is a way to get more of our residents onto light rail, to reduce traffic congestion and drive down greenhouse gas emissions.”

Although Sacramento officials say they are eager to participate in the collaborative, they do not have funds to launch a significant test project using self-driving vehicles. Harris said he hopes the Smart Cities effort will lead to government grants, and that private industry, such as autonomous vehicle research companies, would agree to public-private partnerships.

Testing of self-driving vehicles has ramped up in the last few years. Google, Uber, Tesla, and a handful of international and domestic car manufacturers are developing and testing prototypes. Uber recently began testing a few “robo taxis” in commercial use on Pittsburgh city streets. Those vehicles still have researchers in them who can take control of the wheel at any point.

The most advanced self-driving cars are equipped with detailed mapping systems, lasers and cameras that allow them to find their way along city streets on their own. However, Sacramento’s Harris said the city hopes to learn more during the Smart Cities Collaborative on ways it can add smart traffic signals to the local streetscape. Those signals would be able to tell an approaching anonymous car what the red-green light sequence is, so the car doesn’t have to rely on its camera to see the signal. It can also report to the car’s computer on the traffic status on surrounding blocks.

As well, city officials said they are interested, at some point, in installing wireless smart controllers in traffic signals to make intersection signaling more responsive to real-time traffic flows on a constant basis throughout the day.

Speaking in Sacramento earlier this year, federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the Obama administration wants to promote autonomous vehicle technology.

“This challenge is really starting to push communities to really think about the future and their role in it, and the role of big data and innovation in how they advance into the future,” Foxx said.

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