Austin: The Kitty Hawk of autonomous vehicles | Crain's Austin

Austin: The Kitty Hawk of autonomous vehicles

Austin was home to the first time any car had completed a trip from start to finish on public roads without a test driver. Here, a legally blind man serves as a passenger in a self-driving car in Austin's Mueller neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Waymo.

Texas was one of 10 states that the US Department of Transportation established as a “proving ground” for the testing of connected and automated vehicle technologies to solve community challenges in January 2017.

The Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership includes the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research (CTR), Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and 32 municipal and regional partners with a shared interest in the mobility and safety challenges facing the introduction of autonomous and connected vehicles to public roadways.

The designation comes on the heels of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute in October 2016, tapping Austin to serve as a testing ground on how to prepare for self-driving cars.

Both appointments are a testament to the city’s support of technological innovations in the field of transportation, notes Austin Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.  

Jen Duthie, a director of the Network Modeling Center and a research engineer at The Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin, said that serving as a proving grounds will help researchers understand how these technologies work in the real world.

In particular, there’s excitement about potentially not having to devote as much space to parking in Texas cities as autonomous technology could allow for people being dropped off to destinations by a self-driving car.

“This also has the potential to reduce car ownership,” she said.

As well, there are a number of positive social impacts that could come out of autonomous technology.

“This could allow people who currently can’t drive to get around such as the elderly with limited mobility or children who need help being transported to school,” Duthie said.

Stacey Gillett, senior program officer for government innovation for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said the Bloomberg/Aspen effort is designed to help mayors and city governments identify their needs are when it comes to self-driving cars, and offer support in meeting those needs.

The organizations won’t be funding a pilot in Austin or any of the other designated cities.

“We keep hearing from so many cities that autonomous vehicles are coming faster than they had once anticipated. We’ll just be supporting these cities and figuring out what they need,” Gillett said. “They want help to better understand the technology and what it could do for their city so they can leverage it for the betterment of the city and their residents. We’re trying to bring them together to get smarter faster, and be more strategic in understanding the risks and challenges.”

Other regions around the world can then learn from the experiences of these 10 cities.

“This gives Austin an opportunity to navigate this new and potentially complex area of planning and policymaking,” Gillett said. “It should help Austin accelerate plans for this new technology and be a leader worldwide.”

She said the cities in the program were chosen based on size, density, demographics and varied geography. Austin, Gillett pointed out, has a municipal government focused on creative solutions to urban challenges.

“(Austin) has a growing community that’s thinking seriously about transportation and mobility,” she said. “This is really about mayors wanting to take the lead in shaping how this transportation can ultimately improve people’s lives. Mayor Adler and his team are committed to it.”

Indeed, in December 2014, the Austin City Council passed a resolution that it would work to become a leader in the public infrastructure adaptation of Automated and Connected Vehicle Technology.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has dubbed Austin the Kitty Hawk of self-driving cars, jokes Robert Spillar, the city's director of transportation, referencing the North Carolina town known for the Wright brother's first flight. That’s because in December 2016, Google’s self-driving car project released video of a blind man’s ride through Austin’s Mueller neighborhood. It was the first time any car had completed a trip from start to finish on public roads without a test driver

The biggest issue for the city, according to Spillar, is how to approach autonomous vehicle regulation. California is known for being pretty heavily regulated in this area. Texas, on the other hand, has taken a hands-off approach to automation.

“The laws are permissive in that they are silent on the use of automated cars,” Spillar said. “But until they prove themselves, we need to keep them at slow speeds in protected areas.”

Both Spiller and Duthie believe that despite all the research being dedicated to it, fully automated self-driving cars are still potentially decades off.

“There are so many issues to be worked out,” Duthie said. “We have to figure out how to have them work extremely safely in all types of weather and in all conditions.”

Like Gillett, Spillar believes the speed of the technology is moving faster than the speed of civil engineering has traditionally.

“There’s a real learning curve going on,” Spillar said. “But we’ve had real success working with Google and are dying to demonstrate what mobility as a service might look like here in Austin.”

January 25, 2017 - 3:23pm