Sacramento leaders offer city streets as testing ground for driverless cars

Sacramento stepped up its push to become a national testing ground for driverless cars Wednesday, holding a private meeting downtown with automakers and technology company representatives, then calling a press conference to say Sacramento is hungry to be an robot car leader.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Rep. Doris Matsui convened an invitation-only group of several dozen manufacturers, entrepreneurs, regulators and business community members to offer its streets as a proving ground for the technology that many say will revolutionize driving in the next few decades.

One of those leaders, Kings managing partner and former tech CEO Vivek Ranadive, said he feels that Sacramento is in a race with other communities, some of whom, including San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Phoenix, already have autonomous test cars on their streets.

During the meeting, he said, he issued “what I call the Kings challenge: By the time we open for the new (basketball) season, Nov. 1, we’d like to have 50 people, including the three of us, ride to the game in autonomous vehicles.”

Speaking afterward, Steinberg, Matsui and Ranadive said they solicited industry leaders’ advice on what steps the city should take to position itself, including what policies and regulations need to be created, what insurance and liability issues need to be addressed, and what technology needs to be in place to accommodate vehicle testing.

City officials say the downtown street grid, downtown railyard streets, and Interstate 5 between downtown and Sacramento International Airport could serve as the testing areas. That means cars could give legislators a ride to the airport so they can check out the technology.

The city is calling its nascent effort the Autonomous Transportation Open Standards Lab, or ATOS.

Matsui said she wants the city to take a lead role in helping the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the federal Department of Transportation during their ongoing efforts this year to come up with testing standards.

“This is not a pipe dream at all,” she said. “There is momentum. I really feel this is the moment. We want to know what they need.

“What we do in California really does set the standard.”

Matsui, who was injured last year in a car crash in Washington, D.C., said her goal is to help make driving safer. She cited data showing that 94 percent of crashes are due to driver error.

Steinberg, who took office in December, has said one of his chief goals is to make the city more attractive to entrepreneurs, new technology companies and people with a creative bent.

“Today’s message was, ‘We are all in,’ ” Steinberg said. “We are willing to take risks. We are hungry for change. Sacramento is the perfect petri dish to not only test this technology, but to show how it can be brought to scale.”

The trio offered only a few names of the technology, auto and other companies that participated in the morning meeting, including Uber and Lyft.

“Everyone you’d expect,” Steinberg said.

That included Daniel Kan of Cruise Automation, a San Francisco autonomous technology company that was recently sold to General Motors for $1 billion, according to Fortune magazine. Kan declined comment.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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