Transportation

Could Sacramento become the nation’s hub for testing of self-driving cars?

Sacramento wants to be the robot car testing capital of the country.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, in his first formal policy initiative since taking office earlier this week, joined with Rep. Doris Matsui at the California Auto Museum on Thursday to announce a cooperative effort to lure manufacturers of self-driving cars to test out their inventions on Sacramento streets.

The city will apply on Monday for federal approval to be designated as an automated vehicle proving ground. The designation does not provide federal funds, but allows the city to work cooperatively with the federal Department of Transportation on safe testing of vehicles, starting no later than January 2018.

The mayor and congresswoman, flanked by economic development and technology leaders, say they’re pitching Sacramento as a tech-friendly city where carmakers and other driverless vehicle technology researchers will find regional political support and useful proximity to the state Legislature and the California Department of Motor Vehicles, both of which are key regulators with national impact for the new industry.

“We’re announcing today that Sacramento is ready to be a trailblazer,” Matsui said. “We’re going to push ourselves into this space. We want the industry to know Sacramento is here on the map.”

The congresswoman, who was injured in a car crash eight weeks ago, noted that the new technology could greatly reduce the 35,000 road fatalities annually nationally, almost all of which happen because of driver error.

The effort represents a high-profile focal point in the city’s recent quest to boost its economy and its identity as a technological innovator. Steinberg and Barry Broome of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council announced this summer that Sacramento is participating in a “mega-region” campaign along with Bay Area leaders to expand Northern California’s position as a technology epicenter.

“There are opportunities to not only be on the cutting edge of the future of transportation, but it is also about high-wage job creation, and here is another industry and we have to go for it,” Steinberg said on Thursday, his second day in office. “We’re hungry for technology and innovation.”

Several executives in Sacramento, meanwhile, have already been reaching out privately to research companies in the autonomous vehicle industry with the idea of making Sacramento the place the industry can coalesce to test all the technologies that will be needed to bring automated vehicles en masse to the national transportation system.

Jay Sales, an executive with the VSP Global and a member of that local group, declined to say which companies Sacramento representatives have talked to, but said they range from car manufacturers to companies that design smart traffic signals that can communicate with cars.

Sales said the group is making the case that there is value in doing that work in Sacramento close to the levers of power in state government.

The city has mapped out a car-testing area that includes the Central City grid and Interstate 5 to and from Sacramento International Airport. That way, Sales said, any legislator or other government official flying to and from their home districts could potentially take an autonomous car for a ride, learn how it works and become comfortable with it.

Sales said Thursday’s mayoral announcement as well as the upcoming federal application provide a launch point for Sacramento representatives to to talk more formally with the robot-car industry about bringing test projects to the city.

“I don’t think it is out of reach to see automated vehicles on the streets in the next year,” Sales said.

Competition among cities to be a test ground, however, is intense, and began several years ago.

Many of the 20-plus companies interested in developing driverless cars, such as Tesla, Google and Uber, already are testing their prototype vehicles on city streets. Google has been testing its cars on the streets of Mountain View for several years. Uber this week announced it is testing a few “robo taxis” in commercial use on San Francisco city streets, though the state DMV is telling it to stop until Uber obtains a state permit. The company already has been doing autonomous car tests in Pittsburgh. Those vehicles still have researchers in the driver’s seat who can take control of the wheel at any point.

There is no one city yet, Sacramento officials say, that has set up broad-based testing where different groups can communicate and cooperate.

This week’s announcement is not Sacramento’s initial effort to establish itself as a leader in the new technology. Sacramento recently was chosen as one of 16 cities nationally to participate in a project called the Smart Cities Collaborative, sponsored by Transportation 4 America, a group of businesses, nonprofit groups and local elected leaders, and Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company that seeks to use technology to solve urban problems.

The group is looking into ways cutting-edge technology can make urban transportation more efficient, including how autonomous vehicles can be used to enhance public transit, reduce congestion, and provide equitable, affordable mobility for various income groups.

Sacramento technology leaders have set up a website – sacav.org – inviting interested companies to sign up if interested.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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