Autos & Androids

Is the Puget Sound Region Ready for Driverless Cars?

"Your robot taxi will arrive soon."

By Madeline Ostrander May 22, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Dan Woodger

In the techtopian future that some transportation experts envision for Puget Sound, you’ll no longer walk that rain-sodden, uphill mile to the light rail station or the bus stop. Nevermore will you fight for a parking spot at the Southcenter shopping mall or pay to leave your car in a dank garage near the Sea-Tac airport. Instead, with a swipe of your finger on your smartphone screen, you will conjure a robot taxi, and within minutes, it will pick you up and whisk you wherever you need to go.

The early stages of this dream began to manifest around 2010, when Google announced it had allowed an artificial intelligence program, with human supervision, to steer seven cars along 140,000 miles of public roadway. In 2011, Harvard-trained lawyer Steve Marshall and former naval officer John Niles founded the Seattle-area nonprofit Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions to research and promote electric vehicles and other fossil-fuel-free transportation. All along their interest was in cars fully driven by computers—so-called autonomous vehicles or AVs. Now both say the next phase of the driverless revolution could be just around the corner. 

In June 2017, Washington governor Jay Inslee paid a visit to the headquarters of Bellevue company Echodyne, which makes high-resolution radar systems that could help AVs navigate. There, in the presence of industry representatives from companies like Google, GM, and Uber, the governor signed an executive order allowing driverless cars to take test-drives on Washington roads. 

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Critics and proponents debate the impact driverless taxis will have on the region’s traffic congestion.

Around the same time, Marshall began a full-time post as the City of Bellevue’s transportation technology partnership manager, with a goal of integrating AVs, especially driverless vanpools, into the city’s transit mix. Niles meanwhile began a contract to explore how the City of SeaTac could become a “vehicle automation center of municipal excellence.” Marshall now says that driverless shuttles could wheel down Bellevue’s roads in as little as a year or two. 

“Such microtransit services deployed as soon as possible amount to an aggressive first step in the eventual deployment of robotic point-to-point taxi services,” Niles wrote in a report he presented to the SeaTac Public Works Department. Niles and Marshall say such cars—free from some of the human errors that cause the vast majority of traffic accidents—would hasten both cities’ progress toward the statewide goal of having zero car-crash fatalities by 2030.

In the rosiest scenarios, the region’s road system transforms into a Jetsons-like wonderland of luxurious, driverless electric pods, with less and less need for anyone to own their own gas guzzler. And that would, in theory, hasten the transition from oil to carbon-free energy. 

“The notion here is that, wow, it’s going to be a big shift,” says Daniel Malarkey, a fellow at Sightline Institute and a transportation consultant. “It’s going to be like the shift from horses to cars.” In October, another pair of consultants sent a proposal to the Washington State Transportation Commission suggesting Interstate 5 should have lanes dedicated solely to AVs by 2025 (an idea Niles feels was “premature”).

Skeptics say it’s doubtful whether companies like Uber or Ford will play well with city officials in creating mutually beneficial business models. And when privately run AV services start running loose on city streets, they could open a Pandora’s box of devilish regulatory, economic, and transportation problems. 

Last fall, for example, a pair of researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that smartphone-based ride-hailing services are already cannibalizing public transit ridership in seven major cities, including Seattle. If the average commuter decides it’s preferable to hop in a robocar than take the bus or train, the Seattle area’s already harrowing traffic snarls will only become more tangled. And if AVs are gas-powered or even gas-electric hybrids—like Uber’s test vehicles—running them round the clock on city streets could worsen carbon emissions. Moreover, adoption of robovehicles would likely take jobs from people who drive trucks or deliver pizza. 

Evan Corey Costagliola, who heads the Seattle Department of Transportation’s newly created division focused on a “new mobility” program, says the city has no plans yet to invest in its own driverless fleet. “We’re absolutely not interested in buying into the shiny, new toy without fully understanding what it means for it to operate on our streets and what value we can actually get out of it,” he explains. Instead, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan wants to craft a traffic-tolling plan to discourage humans and, ultimately, robots from operating low-occupancy vehicles downtown.

But Bellevue and other cities on the edges of the Puget Sound metro area have less developed transit systems and different needs than Seattle. “People are going to lots of different places at different times of the day. They’re not necessarily going to one hub,” Marshall says, and he hopes AV service could quickly encourage commuters to get around in electric vehicles. 

Bellevue plans to apply for federal funding to use its streets as a proving ground for AVs, and Niles has urged SeaTac to do the same. Neither of these endeavors would instantly launch a robot-vehicle revolution, he says, but “you’re trying to show a path that has promise.”

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