Foon Rhee

Will Sacramento streets be full of driverless electric cars? It’s exciting, but also scary

If city leaders get their way, Sacramento will become a national proving ground for driverless, carbon-free cars.

That’s both exciting and a little scary, as I discovered when I read the city of Sacramento’s draft plan for zero-emission vehicles the same day the state sent out the latest autonomous vehicle accident reports.

Most are run-of-the-mill fender-benders, low-speed collisions at intersections with no injuries. California is the only state to require these reports, and as of Oct. 30, the Department of Motor Vehicles had received 49. Crashes are becoming more frequent as testing increases – nine in 2015, 15 in 2016 and 24 in 2017.

Thirteen occurred in September and October, and all but one involved cars being tested in San Francisco by GM Cruise, which this year more than doubled its California fleet to 100. Officials with the tech start-up, bought by GM in 2016, say the company is speeding up its learning curve by testing on crowded city streets instead of quieter suburbs – like Google in the Silicon Valley.

GM Cruise, which plans to start testing in New York City next year, says the other driver is usually at fault. Often, the autonomous vehicle is rear-ended, apparently because motorists aren’t expecting it to stop or go so slow.

I hope the company is making lots of progress, because its faster learning curve won’t look as good if there’s a serious injury, or God forbid, a death.

California is about to start the next stage of testing. Now, the state requires someone to be behind the wheel in case something goes wrong with the cars, which navigate with cameras, radar and computer guidance. Starting next year, companies could roll out self-driving vehicles without any person in the car, under proposed rules the state released last month.

It’s already happening in Phoenix. The CEO of Waymo, the self-driving vehicle sister company of Google, announced Tuesday that it is testing cars without anyone behind the wheel and will allow the public to start riding in them in the next few months.

They could be coming soon to Sacramento, which wants to become a prime testing ground for autonomous vehicles.

Sacramento also has big plans to be a research center and test city for electric cars. On this, it has a huge advantage, thanks to $44 million from the settlement in the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The city plans to use much of the windfall to expand the use of zero-emission vehicles in poor communities and to open 50 charging stations for car sharing and 25 for delivery fleets by 2020.

The city’s draft plan – which the Planning Commission discussed last week and the City Council is scheduled to review Nov. 28 – calls for adding 1,770 public and workplace vehicle chargers (including 430 in poor neighborhoods), replacing 75 percent of the city’s vehicle fleet with EVs and adding 230 advanced transportation jobs.

Some planning commissioners said the plan must account for wider use of self-driving vehicles. The blueprint does call for considering how driverless cars will work with EV charging stations. The city’s EV plan is to be started by 2020 and completed by 2025.

Also by 2025, Gov. Jerry Brown has set a statewide goal of 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road as part of his climate change agenda, which he is bragging about all over Europe this week. To get close to the goal, annual electric car sales would have to double. But the House GOP tax cut bill could throw a wrench in the effort by abolishing the $7,500 federal tax credit for buying electric vehicles.

It’ll be a few years before the general public can buy autonomous vehicles, which proponents say can help reduce rising traffic deaths. Even less-than-perfect driverless cars would cause fewer serious collisions than real people and save hundreds of thousands of lives, according to a study released Monday by the Rand Corp.

To some, this whole idea may seem like science fiction. But in the 21st century, technology is moving fast, and many of us have to race to catch up. Just Wednesday Uber announced that in two years, it will bring flying taxis to Los Angeles and other cities. To lower fares, UberAir could eventually run without pilots.

I can probably bring myself to get in a driverless car, but a pilotless plane? Not going to happen.