Ready or not, autonomous vehicles are coming
Portland leaders embraced self-driving cars and trucks as an important part of the future transportation system last week.
At a morning press conference, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commission Dan Saltzman announced a Smart Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI) with the hope of having them tested on city streets in 2017.
"Portland's long history of transportation innovation is about to enter a new chapter," Wheeler said. "My goal is to have an autonomous vehicle pilot program in Portland, working for Portlanders, by the end of the year," Wheeler said before he and Saltzman signed a directive for the Portland Bureau of Transportation to develop autonomous vehicle testing policies and solicit proposals from companies developing them.
"Good rules allow business and government to work together, rather than at odds. Autonomous vehicles can make our streets safer by taking human error out of the equation," said Saltzman, who is in charge of PBOT.
The press conference was held following a panel discussion on the future of autonomous vehicle at the Portland Business Alliance's monthly breakfast forum. Wheeler announced the initiative at the beginning of the forum, and he and Saltzman signed the directive to PBOT afterwards.
The policies would need to be approved by the City Council before any actual testing on Portland streets can occur. Wheeler promised a public outreach program about them before any vote.
"Safety is our top priority," said PBOT Director Leah Treat, who predicted autonomous vehicles would make it easier for low-income residents to reach transit lines and return home.
Autonomous vehicle testing is already underway in a number of cities, including Pittsburg, Detroit and Scottsdale, Arizona. Drivers have so far been present in all vehicles in case of emergencies. Although most of the testing has gone well, Uber recently suspended its testing in Arizona after one of its experimental vehicles was struck by another car and flipped on its side in Tempe. No one was hurt.
PBA President and CEO Sandra McDonough kicked off the discussion by citing studies that predict autonomous vehicles will be a $1.9 trillion part of the economy by 2025. The experts on the panel all agreed that autonomous vehicle technology is being rapidly developed, making it increasingly possible that driverless vehicles will be used for commutes, deliveries, shopping trips and other transportation purposes in the foreseeable future. They agreed that such vehicles could significantly reduce accidents, cut greehouse gas emissions and free up time for travelers that could be put to other purposes.
The experts were Portland General Electric Business Development Director Charlie Allcock, PolySync CEO and co-founder Josh Hartung, and P3 North America managing partner Philip Potkowski. PGE has been a leader in promoting the use of electric vehicles, PolySync is a Portland-based company developing an operating system for autonomous vehicles, and P3 is a technology consulting company that recently opened a Portland office.
"Evolving our transportation infrastructure is one of the great challenges, and the great opportunities, we face in the Portland region," said Allcock.
How soon that future will arrive and what role Portland will play in it was a matter of debate, however.
Allcock said the current discussions about autonomous vehicles reminded him of the early discussions about electric vehicles. PGE sponsored Electric Avenue, the first collection of public charging stations in the country at Portland State Avenue. Although no one knew how many people would buy such vehicles, they are now commonplace and Electric Avenue has been relocated to the company's headquarters in the downtown World Trade Center Building. It recently broke the 1 million mile mark for vehicle charging.
"We got together and rolled out the red carpet," Allcock said of the city's early support for elecrtic vehicles.
Hartung was not sure autonomous vehicle technology will be developed that fast or whether Portland will play such a significant role, however. He described the technologies to allow cars to drive themselves as extremely complicated and predicted it might not be completely sorted out for another 30 years. Hartung also said that although Portland is a good city for testing autonomous vehicles because of the different terrain and weather conditions, not enough companies working on the technologies are currently based here to make it a leader in the field.
"Portland is not going to be a leader but it could be a big stepping stone," said Hartung.
Potkowski's take was somewhere in the middle. He said the technological problems are working themselves out and thought getting on the potential regulators to work together might be a bigger obstacle. He also said Portland is a good city for innovation with a number of companies with offices here already working on autonomous vehicles, including Intel, Daimler and Jaguar Land Rover, which has a research center in the Pearl District.
Hartung also foresaw downsides for autonomous vehicles, especially if former drivers do not use their freed up time positively.
"I see many different futures, and some of them are dark," Hartung said.
Hartung and Potkowski also disagreed over some of the potential benefits of widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. Hartung said they could increase congestion by encouraging people to live father away from where they work. Potkowski said they could cut the current number of vehicles on the road by more than half, reducing the size of freeways and the number of parking garages.
"We all think we know the future, but this is a journey," said Allcock, who predicted different versions of autonomous vehicles will be developed, approved and then changed in the years ahead.