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D.C. Will Take Global Lead on Self-Driving Cars

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

DC Inno by Ryan Ferguson

Washington, D.C. will join a cohort of global cities to prepare for the emergence of self-driving cars.

In an announcement Wednesday from the Bloomberg Aspen Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles, D.C. was named alongside Helsinki, Finland; London, England; São Paulo, Brazil; Tel Aviv, Israel as cities that will join an inaugural group of five other locales to help produce a set of principles and tools that cities can use to plan for the coming revolution in driverless technologies.

In making the announcement at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, former New York City mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg indicated that the partnership would have support from automakers.

Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, who have not been shy about their wishes to adopt self-driving technology, could also play a role. When the initiative was originally announced in October, co-founder and President of Lyft John Zimmer said he, "look[s] forward to working together on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine and redesign our cities around people over cars."

Andrew Trueblood, chief of staff to the D.C. Mayor of Planning and Economic Development, says the District is hopeful the opportunity for peer-to-peer learning through the initiative.

"We understand autonomous vehicles are coming one way or another," Trueblood told DC Inno in an interview. "Thinking through the implications like what does it mean in terms of workforce and employment, or urban planning and parking are issues we're excited to address with other cities."

The District also sees the collaboration as an opportunity to highlight some of the work is has already done on autonomous vehicle legislation and on projects like the Starship autonomous delivery pilot scheduled to start this year.

In discussing the possibility for future autonomous vehicle pilot programs, Trueblood said that while the natural appeal of D.C. is the national audience that comes with being the capital city, there are unique regulatory advantages. Because the District operates under a single governing structure, it doesn't need to navigate state, county and local regulations to test innovative projects. He pointed to the forthcoming Starship pilot as an example of a company that was attracted D.C. for this exact reason.

When it comes to self-driving car testing, the Deputy Mayor's office says they have been in discussions with multiple automakers and hope to find a partner for a pilot program, though declined to give a prediction on a timeline for such a project.

This initiative is not the only help D.C. will be getting in implementing an infrastructure to support self-driving cars. As we reported last year, Sidewalk Labs, part of Google parent company Alphabet, is partnering with the advocacy group Transportation for America to help test and analyze autonomous vehicle and other mobility innovations in D.C. and other cities, such as Los Angeles, Boston, Austin.

To the District government, there are a number of potential issues that autonomous vehicles could solve.

"If traffic moves smoothly and creates no fatalities, this could be an amazing way to get to Vision Zero," said Trueblood, referencing the District initiative to eliminate pedestrian and auto fatalities. Beyond that, he said, self-driving car test could answer questions like: "Do we need as many parking spaces? Can we do multi-modal uses for roads? How can this support transportation options in underserved areas?"

The Bloomberg Aspen Initiative will facilitate chances for city representatives to convene over the next year to address autonomous vehicle issues and opportunities.