Innovation

Self-driving stories: How 6 US cities are planning for autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicle technology is an emerging issue for many cities, and more than 50% are already planning for self-driving cars, according to a new report.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be ubiquitous in a matter of years with more cities than ever making long-range transportation plans and hosting self-driving pilots, according to a new report and guide from the National League of Cities (NLC).

According to the report, Autonomous Vehicle Pilots Across America, more than 50% of US cities are currently preparing their streets for self-driving vehicles, up from less than 10% three years ago. Some of these cities have also started testing autonomous vehicles.

"Autonomous vehicles are about to radically shift how people move through cities," said Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of NLC, in a press release. "This new technology has the potential to build equity and create opportunities for vulnerable populations. As always, cities are supporting the needs of their residents and meeting them where they are, both literally and figuratively."

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of autonomous vehicles (Tech Pro Research)

State and federal governments play a big role in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles. The federal government traditionally sets regulations and safety standards for vehicles in the US, and there are currently a number of laws being considered.

The report states: "The interplay between state, local and the federal government is critical to the rollout of AVs. Between 2011 and 2017, 22 states passed 46 bills related to AV usage while five governors signed executive orders encouraging their development. Most of the legislative action expressly permitted AV pilots. And this year, another boon in state action on AV policy is underway, with 28 states introducing, debating and/or passing 98 bills in this arena."

The NLC includes a list of best practices and recommendations in the report, as well as an overview of six cities around the US and how they approach autonomous vehicles:

Arlington, TX - In August 2017, the city began testing a 12-passenger AV shuttle on a fixed route on non-public roads as part of a partnership with Arlington's Conventions and Visitors Bureau, the report said. There are now two shuttles in operation. The shuttles are staffed with "on-board information ambassadors" who can manually operate the shuttles if necessary. Since inception, the shuttle has given more than 1,500 rides. A second phase of on-street testing is next, and the city has issued a competitive Request for Proposals (RFPs) to bring autonomous passenger vehicles to a geofenced section of the city. The expectation is for on-street AV service to debut later this fall.

Boston, MA - In 2015, the city applied to the US DoT's Smart City Challenge (which was won by Columbus, OH) and began mulling over what Boston's streets would look like in the future. Boston didn't win the Challenge, but used the research to focus on mobility and in September 2016 was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a focus city for future mobility. In January 2017, Boston began an AV pilot program on a fixed route with a rideshare program, working with nuTonomy and Optimus Ride. It was recently announced that it would expand throughout Boston, according to the report.

SEE: Boston becomes latest city for driverless car tests, in partnership with nuTonomy (TechRepublic)

Portland, OR - In the summer of 2017, the city opened a Request For Information to see how AVs could benefit Portland's existing public transit system. City officials are currently evaluating the 19 applications to figure out which projects to pursue. The goal is to provide service to people, not providing specific vehicles. The pilot is expected to reach city streets in 2019.

SEE: New smart city traffic project takes off in Portland, OR (TechRepublic)

Pittsburgh, PA - In 2016, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto agreed to allow Uber to start an AV pilot program. There is no written agreement with Uber, or with the other four companies that have since launched AVs on the city's streets. By not pinning it down to writing, it allows the companies to stay nimble and embrace innovation. As noted in the report, another RFP is expected to open this year for the next chapter of AVs in the city of Pittsburgh with a focus on public transportation and first mile/last mile gaps. Use cases might include micro transit, medium-sized shuttles or city buses.

SEE: Pittsburgh's smart city efforts include autonomous driving, open data, and renewable energy (TechRepublic)

San Jose, CA - This California city is interested in having shared autonomous electric vehicles to integrate with public transit as part of a public-private partnership. After realizing some major tech companies in the area were using city streets for private testing, city officials decided to take an active role in shaping how self-driving vehicles would affect San Jose. The city hosted a roundtable with the mayor and more than 30 private sector AV developers as well as US DoT officials, and in June 2017, began seeking AV developers to work with the city. Vehicles are expected to roll out in early 2019, the report noted, and the current plan is for a fixed-route pilot with established pick up and drop off points.

Chandler, AZ - Chandler is basically a suburb to the south of Phoenix, and it's home to several large tech companies, including Intel, NXP Semiconductors, and Rogers Corp. The General Motors IT Innovation Center is also located in Chandler, and many other auto manufacturers have long had facilities in the area, since it's a hotbed for vehicle testing. AVs were first tested in the city in 2015, and autonomous vehicles have had a city-wide presence since 2016, as the city hosted some of the country's first AV testing on public roads. The city serves as a facilitator for AVs, with the state as a regulator. The city has tested emergency response vehicles on a closed track, and it's amended its zoning development code to reduce parking requirements by up to 40%, allowing passenger loading zones for drop-off and pick-up spots for AVs and ridesharing.

SEE: Tech and the future of transportation (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

"We are fast approaching the time where we can take our hands off the wheel, and just sit back and enjoy the ride," said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of NLC's Center for City Solutions, in a press release. "Many people are wondering when we will truly see robots rolling down our streets, but in many cities this is already a reality. By piloting autonomous vehicle technology now, cities are able to ensure that any new policies and processes are city-centered and can be molded to the needs of people first and foremost."

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Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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