Self-Driving Vehicles May Be the Answer to Seattle-Area Traffic Problems

Autonomous vehicles are coming. And soon. The key to their ultimate impact may be how many people each one carries.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print in the September 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

The sudden appearance of driverless cars, not long ago the stuff of science fiction, has some Puget Sound transportation managers a little spooked.

“We do not want the technology to decide what kind of city we will have,” says Benjamin de la Peña, deputy director for policy, planning, mobility and right of way at Seattle’s Department of Transportation, pointing to the way planners in the early 1900s reshaped cities to accommodate automobiles. “We need to decide what kind of city we want and have the technology adapt to that kind of city.”

The recent death of an Arizona woman who was struck by a self-driving Uber car raised an alarm that perhaps these vehicles aren’t ready for prime time. But experts continue to believe that the autonomous vehicle, or AV, will see a significant increase in usage during the coming decade. How cities prepare for its arrival will determine whether it exacerbates urban problems or provides a solution to increasingly congested highways.

“The technology is already here. You can summon a driverless vehicle through Lyft in Nevada and Phoenix, in Boston and Atlanta,” says Avery Ash, head of AV development at Inrix, the Kirkland-based transportation analytics and connected-car services company. As AV numbers grow, Ash says, “It’s going to be up to the public sector to make sure we are addressing the negative externalities as they come to light.”

There may not be much time to prepare. Tom Alberg, a cofounder of Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group and a strong supporter of AV technology, thinks the number of AVs in use will increase more rapidly than most people anticipate. “My guess would be that by 2022, we are going to have a lot of vehicles with strong autonomous capabilities on the roads,” Alberg says. He expects that in 12 years, autonomous cars will account for more than 50 percent of new-car sales. “I think AVs are going to be very helpful for low-income communities, people with disabilities and seniors — people who can’t drive,” Alberg adds.

Many technology issues still must be resolved before AVs become widely available, but the key determinant in whether they will help or hurt our cities may boil down to this: Will they be single-rider vehicles, like most vehicles today, or will they carry multiple riders and become an extension of our public transit systems?

A 2017 report called the “New Mobility Playbook” by Seattle’s Department of Transportation suggests that AVs, if shared rather than privately owned, could result in 45 percent fewer cars on the road in Seattle by 2030. But if the AVs are privately owned, and hundreds of thousands of people choose to live in distant suburbs in search of cheaper homes because home prices in Seattle are out of reach, and they ride to and from work each day alone, sleeping or working as their self-driving cars wend their way for hours into the city, congestion in the Seattle area would spread like a cancer farther and farther out into the rest of the state.

KEEPING IN TOUCH. Cities will use roadside communication units at fixed points to link data between infrastructure and AVs. Photo courtesy of HNTB


Alberg helped launch ACES Northwest Network, an organization financed by corporations, to develop a system of van pools to help the region address the looming “period of maximum constraint,” the term Seattle uses to describe the three-year-period beginning in 2019 when a series of major road and building projects threatens to bring traffic to a standstill. Those conventional vans would eventually be replaced by self-driving vans when the latter are commercially available.

Over time, AVs would help address congestion, reduce pollution and increase safety, says Kamyar Moinzadeh, president and CEO of Airbiquity. The Seattle company  provides over-the-air software updates and data management for connected vehicles, which “will operate with higher orders of intelligence, predictability and consistency than vehicles driven by humans.”

By providing lanes on freeways for AVs, says Jim Barbaresso, SVP at HNTB Corporation, an infrastructure solutions firm based in California, “You can increase capacity rather dramatically, even with single-occupant automated vehicles, by platooning vehicles in a dedicated lane. You can increase the speed and harmonize that speed of all the people so basically they’re operating as a single unit because they are electronically tethered to each other.” And without human drivers, he adds, lane widths can be reduced.

Making city traffic more efficient, however, depends on having an efficient data infrastructure. “In essence,” Barbaresso says, “you use information that is being transmitted continuously between the vehicles and the traffic signals to harmonize your flow, so vehicles get a green light almost every time.”

To be sure, traffic is not the only concern. One of the driving forces behind AV development is safety.

“Safety will be the No. 1 benefit,” insists Steve Marshall, transportation technology partnership manager for the city of Bellevue. Marshall notes that the city’s Vision Zero initiative calls for reducing traffic fatalities to zero by 2030. “That’s right around the corner,” he says, “and we won’t get there without AV.”

Last year alone, Moinzadeh points out, there were more than 40,000 traffic fatalities in the United States, and the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates 94 percent of fatal crashes were due to human error. “Given that autonomous vehicles don’t text, drive under the influence, get distracted by human emotions or attempt to cheat driving rules, their introduction into our transportation system has the promise of significantly reducing the risk of deadly and injurious crashes,” he argues.

There is still much to be worked out before self-driving vehicles are truly safe, however.

“The premise is that AVs make fewer mistakes than people driving cars,” says de la Peña, “but that all depends on their ability to understand what the regulatory environment is on a particular road,” he explains. If a traffic sign has been obscured with graffiti, for example, will an AV be able to read it? Research, he adds, shows that visual-recognition systems in AVs can be hacked.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS. Benjamin de la Peña is the city of Seattle’s point man on “new mobility,” including the use of autonomous vehicles. Photo by Hayley Young

While Seattle is still studying the many issues raised by AVs, some other cities in the region have begun testing.

Kirkland, the site of a Google office employing more than 1,000 people, began hosting an AV test program in 2016. The company had already been testing AVs in Mountain View, California, and Austin, Texas. It added Kirkland as a test site because of its variable, and often wet, climate.

“Kirkland is a town that prides itself on being open to new technologies that could help improve our daily lives,” Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen said in a statement in 2016. “We are excited about the potential self-driving cars have to reduce accident rates and to provide mobility for people who can’t get around easily.”

City Manager Kurt Triplett says the Google testing, which recently concluded, was successful. “It went very smoothly,” he says. “We had quite a bit of public interest and support. It almost became sort of, ‘Can you spot the Google car?’”

Kirkland hasn’t yet scheduled any changes in infrastructure, but Triplett says initially the city expects any changes to be modest. “Some companies say it is as simple as making sure you have adequate striping so the cars can see them better,” he notes. “There are others who have said they would be very interested in having some sort of device on light signals that tells the car where it is in space. We are pretty much open to any of that.”

Triplett says the city is also being advised to plan for changes in curbside use policies. “Would we let autonomous cars use loading and unloading zones? Would we set aside further sections of our curbside for autonomous vehicles?” he wonders. “We don’t have anything figured out yet, but those are the kinds of things our team is looking at.”

Triplett adds that the city’s current thinking is that the most likely initial deployment of AVs will be in the form of fixed-route transit. He says Kirkland is talking with neighboring Bellevue and with King County Metro, which operates the region’s bus system, about potential partner transit projects and perhaps a coalition of transit agencies to prepare for AVs.

In 2016, Bellevue passed a levy that raised $300,000 for developing partnership projects aimed at improving traffic safety and reducing congestion through autonomous vehicles and other technologies such as the city’s Intelligent Traffic System. The system can change the timing of traffic lights on thefly to adjust to traffic conditions.

Kirkland and Bellevue’s efforts to develop AV van pools could represent important steps in determining whether AV technology is a shared-vehicle benefit or a single-occupancy-vehicle curse.

PEOPLE MOVER. Bruce Agnew is director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, which supports ACES Northwest Network, a collective working to bring automated, connected, electric and shared vehicle technologies to the Puget Sound region. Photo by Hayley Young

If AV vehicles are largely used for single occupancy, they could cause worse congestion by persuading more people to live farther away from the city.

“Drivers may tolerate longer commutes or choose different travel routes if they are able to perform other tasks in the car (e.g., work, sleep),” according to “Driverless Seattle: How Cities Can Plan for Automated Vehicles,” a report issued last year by the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington.

“The problem is the tyranny of geometry,” says de la Peña. “No matter what you do, a car will take up this much space [and] it will carry this many people. Unless autonomous vehicles are electric and shared, they may actually create more problems.”

Thanks to the nation’s emphasis on privately owned vehicles over public transportation, he adds, “We already have an exclusionary and discriminatory transportation system in our country. AVs could exacerbate that exclusion.”

Another approach is to use self-driving vans to deal with specific pain points. ACES Northwest Network is putting together a proposal for a series of measures to improve transportation in the South Lake Union and Queen Anne neighborhoods of Seattle to address the congestion that will arise when the Oak View Group’s arena at Seattle Center is completed and begins hosting up to 250 events a year. Among the ideas are ferries connecting Renton and Kenmore to South Lake Union, Pier 91 at Interbay and Pier 71 at Belltown, and even Kitsap County. Van shuttles would then connect the ferry stops to the arena. Similar self-driving “last mile” vans might one day connect gathering points like libraries or church parking lots in neighborhoods across the region with light rail stations and other transit hubs, providing transit options that don’t make financial sense for Metro buses, says Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center, which is staffing the ACES project.  

ACES, which stands for Automated, Connected, Electric and Shared vehicle technologies, is working with Bellevue to apply for a grant to establish a network of vans along the I-405 corridor. It would be financed by employers, users and government organizations to supplement the city’s existing transit system during periods when I-405 is being resurfaced. The network would be one of the largest such bus projects in the country.

Those plans would call for the use of conventional vans early on, but then shift to autonomous vehicles in five years. The self-driving vans would initially be operated by “safety drivers” to make sure they don’t encounter problems. Since the vans would be operating on a repeated loop, they would be less likely to face unexpected obstacles.

It’s not so farfetched. The University of Michigan recently began testing a driverless shuttle on a one-mile, round-trip route through part of its north campus. Since costs for AV buses are expected to be one-eighth the cost of regular public transit, the vans can be deployed in areas that King County Metro can’t justify for larger buses.

HAVE A LOOK. Standard in any urban setting, CCTV cameras could detect wrong-way vehicles or toll violations in an AV environment. Photo by Hayley Young

ACES has also launched an Access Urban Design Studio led by the architecture firm NBBJ to look at how to develop Queen Anne and South Lake Union as models for taking advantage of environmentally friendly electric AVs. The eventual arrival of “robotaxis” will reduce the need for parking, for example, so the plan will envision how street parking spaces might be reused to create wider sidewalks, swales for drainage runoff, drop-off points and bike paths.

“ACES envisions transforming street and walking areas,” says Agnew. “Developers and city officials need a bigger picture. We are working with the University of Washington to be a private sector cheerleading group so we will be ready for AVs.”

While most of these efforts will cost money, AVs could end up reducing one key source of revenue for many cities: traffic and parking fines. In Seattle, traffic fines constitute $29.2 million of the city’s primary operating fund. Of that amount, 70 to 85 percent comes from parking citations, the “Driverless Seattle” report notes. Since AVs will seldom park or break traffic laws, their use could sharply reduce city revenue.

While the region’s technology companies are pushing ahead to advance the state of the art in AV, and Kirkland and Bellevue are exploring the use of AV bus services, Seattle is proceeding extra cautiously. “It’s on our radar,” says de la Peña. “We are paying attention to it and we know we have to prep for it.”

Preparing for AVs will take more than cheerleading, according to “Driverless Seattle.” In addition to the lane striping and curbside development cited by Triplett, UW researchers warn that more changes will be needed as the number of AVs rises and their sophistication advances — including charging stations, modified road signage and roadside units to handle data communications generated by vehicles as they communicate with other vehicles as well as the city’s traffic management system. UW’s Tech Policy Lab advises cities to examine whether it makes sense to invest directly in the new technology or work with the private sector to provide some of the services.

Barbaresso suggests that cities look into public-private partnerships with communications service firms such as T-Mobile and Verizon. “Those companies get access to your right of way, to the vertical infrastructure, for their mini-cell technology,” he says. “In exchange for that, the city should be able to get something back and that would be maybe some communications capacity, dark [unused] fiber, even a promise that the private communications carriers share the data.”

The data collected by AVs, if shared with the city, could offer a lot of benefits, says de la Peña. The data feed from AV cameras could, for example, be analyzed to detect problems in road conditions and allow the city to target repairs efficiently. Of course, that presumes the city can access AV data.

While the issues are complex and the costs potentially high, if AVs can help the region address growing congestion, the potential benefits are enormous.

Business Opportunities in the AV World

Even as cities around the Puget Sound region grapple with policy issues relating to autonomous vehicles, there is also recognition that the technology represents a major business opportunity. In June 2017, Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order welcoming “the safe testing and operation of AVs” that would “help save countless lives, reclaim time spent in traffic, improve mobility and be an important tool in our efforts to combat climate change.” The order was signed at the Bellevue office of Echodyne, a company that is developing low-cost, miniature radars that would help autonomous vehicles better “see” the world around them.

Bellevue truck manufacturer Paccar has developed a prototype autonomous truck and it announced in March 2017 that it had partnered with Nvidia to develop new AV technologies. Experts believe AV technology, even if it doesn’t completely replace the driver, could provide short-term relief for a severe shortage of truck drivers by allowing companies to hire drivers who might not be able to drive without the help of the technology.

Other local companies involved with AV technology include Bellevue-based Xevo, which is working on the connection between in-car data and cloud-based analytics, and Redmond-based Kymeta, which is developing antennas that would allow cars to stay connected to the internet in remote places by connecting to satellites.

Leslie Helm contributed reporting to this story.

Related Content

Code.org and Technology Access Foundation founders will be honored at Tech Impact Awards event on September 25.

DroneSeed is using multiple drones on remote forestland.

CEO Satya Nadella says raising a son with cerebral palsy helped him "better understand the journey of people with disabilities.”

Propella’s lightweight, affordable e-bike was created with Seattle in mind.