Transportation

Sacramento’s vision: Self-driving cars take passengers to light-rail trains

Imagine tapping your smartphone to summon a computer-controlled car – with no human driver – to chauffeur you to a light-rail station for your commute or a trip to the doctor or shopping mall.

Sacramento officials say they think that futuristic scenario, seemingly far-fetched at the moment, has a chance of becoming reality. Teaming with Regional Transit, the city of Sacramento proposed adding autonomous cars to its transportation network in an unusual grant application submitted last week to the federal Department of Transportation.

Sacramento is one of 77 cities nationally that responded to a federal call for proposals that will take urban transportation into the high-tech age. The competition, focused on medium-sized cities, is called the Smart City Challenge. Federal transportation officials say they want to push cities to get creative in exploring ways of improving transportation options via technology and data analytics rather than by building more roads and more lanes.

A Sacramento city official acknowledged the city is only in the early stages of thinking about possibilities. Self-driving cars are not even ready for market, and it is uncertain when they will become available and at what cost.

But, said Ryan Moore, a city engineer involved in the proposal, “we’re trying to develop a big idea. There is no reason Sacramento shouldn’t be on the cutting edge.”

The city’s proposal represents an attempt to fix a weakness that RT and many transit districts have. Transit studies nationwide show that people are willing to walk only about a half mile to get to a light-rail or bus stop. In Sacramento’s low-density, suburban communities, most potential light-rail riders live farther than a half mile from a station.

Moore said the city proposal talks about creating a smartphone app, similar to ones used by ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber, that will allow transit users to call for a self-driving car to take them that extra mile or two to a station, or from a station to their workplace.

The self-driving cars, likely to be owned by RT, would be staged initially at a few light-rail stations for deployment, Moore said. Under the proposal, other stations could be served by an arrangement with conventional ride-share companies.

“Some folks may be a little weirded out by a vehicle with no driver in it,” Moore said, but “we think this is a way to get more of our residents onto light rail, to reduce traffic congestion and drive down greenhouse gas emissions.”

Moore said city and transit officials believe the combination of self-driving shuttle car and light rail could be less expensive for many commuters than taking their own car and paying for downtown parking. If the shuttle/rail combination doesn’t work well for a rider, Moore said the smartphone app could direct the person to a ride-share company.

Sacramento’s application also includes a request for funds to buy and install wireless smart controllers in traffic signals to make intersection signaling more responsive to real-time traffic flows. The smart controllers adjust the red and green light timing constantly during the day to match how many cars are coming from each direction.

“That’s the most exciting part to me,” Moore said. “The important thing about smart controllers is they exist now. It just hasn’t been widely deployed in the United States. That’s the direction we want to go anyway. The hope is we can start now.”

Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley said the agency likes the shuttle vehicle concept. “We thought it was an absolute natural for us. We are always looking for ways to increase access to our service.”

The transit agency has been under financial duress since the 2008 recession and has been losing riders, even as its operating costs have increased. In recent months, the agency has been shopping around for ways to improve its viability in the community and to balance its budget. The agency is considering raising fares this summer.

A representative from Eye on Sacramento, a government watchdog group, said he believes the city “is right on the mark” with its thinking. Sacramento resident Gregory Thompson, a retired Florida State University urban and regional planning professor, said he wants to see Regional Transit explore the possibilities of ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles.

“I think it is an excellent idea to open RT up to alternative service delivery modes,” Thompson said. “We don’t know where this technology is going to take us, but it is clearly happening.”

Federal officials said they are pleased with the number of cities that have jumped into the competition with proposals. The Department of Transportation said it will announce five finalist cities on March 12. Finalists will be awarded $100,000 to hone their proposals, and a winner will be chosen in June.

Automotive and technology companies have been developing automated vehicle driving systems for two decades. It is uncertain, though, when fully autonomous vehicle technology will be ready for public use. Speaking at a forum last week, California Transportation Agency chief Brian Kelly said companies promoting automated vehicle technology first need to prove to the state that the cars are safe.

Google, which tests fully self-driving cars on streets near its Mountain View headquarters, wants to have autonomous cars on the market in four years. Others in the industry say it could take a few years longer before the first self-driving cars are ready for public streets. Some analysts say the first use of the technology might be for fleet vehicles, similar to Sacramento’s proposal.

Speaking in Sacramento last week, federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the Obama administration wants to promote autonomous vehicle technology.

“This challenge is really starting to push communities to really think about the future and their role in it, and the role of big data and innovation in how they advance into the future,” Foxx said. “Every community that submits an application wins, because they have already begun to swing the pendulum ... to a forward position.”

The Obama administration last month said it will ask Congress to approve $4 billion over the next decade on research supportive of driverless-car technology. Foxx recently rode in a Google test car. “Holy smokes; it’s really interesting technology,” Foxx said.

The winner could get up to $40 million from the Department of Transportation. In addition to that, a private partner, Vulcan Inc. of Seattle, is offering up to $10 million to the winning city for proposals that include electric vehicles and carbon emission reduction strategies.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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