Eastside bracing for replacing human drivers

Bellevue takes a position in the race to develop autonomous vehicles.

It is perhaps the single-greatest transportation revolution since the Ford Model T. And the Eastside is at the forefront of the movement.

The idealistic concept of autonomous vehicles has now become concrete discourses and brass-tacks negotiations. In the last year alone, the nation has seen more pointed efforts from companies like Tesla and Google. And in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order — nearby, in Bellevue — allowing for easier testing and operation of self-driving cars.

Experts in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology say the path forward requires city and state leaders to be proactive, making changes to local roadways, infrastructure, and legislation. While some cities have not yet developed this framework, others are already paving the way to accommodate the impact of replacing human drivers.

What is a major problem for many cities is the very reason that Bellevue will be on the cutting edge of ACES technology, officials believe.

ACES is an acronym that stands for autonomous, connected, electric and shared, vehicles. This is a future where personal vehicle ownership is rare, and those that are personally owned will be automated as well. These cars will all communicate with each other and with the infrastructure of the city they are driving in, ensuring few surprises for the software piloting the car. And in Bellevue, that infrastructure is prepared.

On the top floor of Bellevue City Hall, absorbing data from traffic signals all across the city, is Bellevue’s adaptive Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS.

ITS uses the data it receives to change the timing of lights all over Bellevue. Where other cities’ lights run on timers depending on the time of day, ITS can change in real time in accordance with traffic. Fred Liang, Bellevue’s ITS manager, describes it this way: “With the adaptive system you’re able for the system to no longer need to [rely on timers], so now every cycle is looking at the congestion level of each lane and then making a decision. It goes ‘OK, do I need to go to a higher cycle or lower cycle? Should I give more green time to one direction over the other?”

The city of Bellevue’s Neighborhood Safety, Connectivity and Congestion Levy allocates $300,000 toward new ITS partnerships.

This system, and the wealth of data sent to it, would be a boon to connected AVs and is uncommon in the U.S. Rarer still is the fiber-optic cable running under the city that delivers this information exponentially faster than other cities are capable of.

Not only will this be able to assist AVs when they finally get here, but the city can also share this with tech developers in the area.

“We can allow them to plug into the data that our Transportation Department has from the continual feeds it gets,” said former Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace. “I think we can say we have the most advanced traffic signal system in the country with this adaptive system that we have. It provides data that new companies with new ideas can use.”

And those companies are close by.

While this technologyputs Bellevue in a special position for ACES vehicles, the city’s efforts in bringing tech companies to the area have been successful and has given the city another advantage.

“A lot of the companies that are developing this technology are already here, so we have the opportunity to work with people that are in our city already,” Wallace said. “That’s really one of the primary roles of Steve Marshall; his position is called the Transportation Technology Partnership manager because his role is to go out and develop these partnerships with companies that are working in the technology space and telling them what we have to offer them.”

One such Bellevue company that is already working in the technology space is Paccar, a global truck manufacturer, which announced in March 2017 a partnership to develop solutions for autonomous vehicles with international company Nvidia. Paccar has already developed a “proof-of-concept self-driving truck” built on Nvidia Drive PX 2 technology and trained on deep neural networks. Deep learning artificial intelligence, another breakthrough in technology, is being used to power self-driving software. Echodyne is developing the sensors, in the form of advanced radar, which are needed to make the cars safe.

This past June, Xevo, a leader in software and application platforms for the automotive and cruise industries, announced its move to Downtown Bellevue. The company’s automotive software is paving the way for autonomous vehicles and incorporates deep learning, computer vision, machine learning, big data analytics and cloud services.

Other cities have not been as successful as Bellevue with enticing tech companies, due to harsh policies and a lack of understanding of the needs of AV technology. Charles Knutson, the governor’s Transportation and Economic Development advisor, said Inslee’s executive order was made with this in mind.

“There are other states that have made mistakes on this and they have rushed to regulate and put autonomous vehicles in a box before they have really taken off,” Knutson said. “The executive order puts out a ‘light touch’ vision so Washington can maintain its leadership position in developing autonomous vehicle technology.

“As for Bellevue, we were very intentional in signing the executive order at Echodyne. It is a great example of a homegrown company that is really carving out a niche for this kind of technology, which needs the certainty and predictability of a light-touch policy to really thrive. So the executive order really helps cultivate and nurture that innovation, and makes sure that we’re an early adopter of this technology.”

Inslee told the Reporter that for cities to ensure they are leading the way in the shift toward self-driving cars, they need “an ecosystem of innovation,” which includes research, education, government partnerships with entrepreneurs and a focus on safety.

He noted that 22 companies in Washington state are currently developing technology for autonomous vehicles, including Echodyne. Inslee said Echodyne’s “whiz-bang technology” will allow self-driving vehicles to detect objects around them, making them more effective to drive in fog and snow than optical or laser systems.

“They’re doing really gangbuster radar systems — it’s pretty cool,” Inslee said.

Predictions on the future of automated technology form a sort of spectrum. From those with more conservative expectations to those who completely buy in to a driverless future, there is a nuance to the debate. However, even with opponents to the idea that AV technology will cause a transportation overhaul, few, if any, see the technology going to waste.

In a field where most eyes are looking to the future, AV technology is already in use in the form of the shuttle. Companies like nationwide Easymile, international Navya and many more have developed a shuttle that is fully autonomous and fully electric. Lauren Isaac, Easymile’s director for Business Initiatives, describes them this way: “The shuttles currently hold 12 people total, six people seated and six people standing,” Isaac said. “It’s really a first and last mile mobility option for people so we see them as a great addition to transportation systems.”

In this scenario, the majority of people will still have their own personal vehicles, but the shuttles would supplement the already existing public transit.

“They actually increase ridership to other transportation systems and for that reason we think it creates great opportunity to provide more mobility options,” Isaac said.

Between the shuttles and more radical ideas is autonomous ridesharing — a concept that Bellevue is considering. This is basically a self-driving fleet of vans roaming around waiting to be summoned.

“We’re looking into autonomous, electric vanpools,” said Marshall, the city’s Transportation Technology Partnership manager.

Much of this work is done through the ACES Northwest Network, a nonprofit created by the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, which provides commerce between the governments and technology businesses in the Puget Sound area with the goal of improving the region’s traffic ailments.

Marshall said one of the Google subsidiaries, Waymo, is testing some Chrysler Pacifica vans “that would be great for vanpools. If you tie that into a system where you can order things online, you could be making a flexible autonomous electric vanpool program to supplement what we now have and help reduce congestion as well emissions, and becoming more safe.”

One of the most radical predictions — a city of solely ACES vehicles — is plausible, according to the ACES Northwest Network, which envisions a Puget Sound transportation system that fully utilizes the benefits of advanced technologies to become faster, safer and more efficient. This possible future has profound implications, from the parking lots that would now be available as real estate, to the immense environmental impact and to a generation of humans who may never drive a car. Many experts claim this could be a reality as soon as 2030.

Steve Marshall, the city’s Transportation Technology Partnership Manager, standing in the city’s Traffic Management Center. Jon Ladd/Reporter intern                                Steve Marshall, the city’s Transportation Technology Partnership Manager, standing in the city’s Traffic Management Center. Jon Ladd/Reporter intern

Steve Marshall, the city’s Transportation Technology Partnership Manager, standing in the city’s Traffic Management Center. Jon Ladd/Reporter intern Steve Marshall, the city’s Transportation Technology Partnership Manager, standing in the city’s Traffic Management Center. Jon Ladd/Reporter intern