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updated 10:27 PM CDT, Sep 8, 2016

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Autonomous vehicles will drive WA state's future

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There is a growing conviction among influential leaders in Washington state, ranging from the governor through local elected officials and business executives, that autonomous vehicles will play a key role in this state's transportation future.

If 2016 was the year of the train in the Puget Sound area with discussion and debate over the nation's most expensive transit ballot measure ever, the $54 billion ST-3 to build a regional rail infrastructure over the next 25 years, then 2017 could be the year of the first meaningful steps toward a future of reinvented highway vehicles.  

But the first actual, autonomous "wheels on the road" project in this state could get underway in early 2018 in the City of SeaTac, the municipality that includes Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  

But as meaningful steps toward what I'll call - aCars, or even what's being referred to as semi-autonomous vehicles that will have a driver at the ready, begin emerging, proponents will need to develop a plan to deal with the inevitable pushback from the disruptive idea of vehicles without drivers.

Gov. Jay Inslee, whose support will be essential to overcome the objections that emerge, set the stage for a strong focus on autonomous vehicles when he issued an executive order in June to put the state behind autonomous vehicle development efforts, including allowing companies to test drive them on state roads.

A month later his office welcomed the robot vehicle from a Virginia company that was spun out from Virginia Tech after it was safely driven, as a semi-autonomous vehicle, across the country, and through Washington state without incident.

Nothing is as far along in this state as the Virginia company, called Torc Robotics, but a couple of noteworthy efforts are underway that could attract increasing attention, and not just in this state. One is in Bellevue, where a focus on autonomous vans (we can refer to them as A-vans,), paid for without public subsidy, is occurring. The other is in the City of SeaTac, which would be a project logical by the proximity of airport-related businesses and the amount of traffic they and the airport itself generate.

The focus on autonomous multi-passenger vans is the brainchild of Steve Marshall, manager of the City of Bellevue's Transportation Technology Partnership, and Charles Collins, who has been active in exploring transportation and commute issues since his days as the second director of King County Metro in the late 1970s. Collins created the King County vanpool system that has become the most successful in the country.

The transportation experience and expertise of Marshall and Collins have probably put them at the peak of the pyramid from which to envision what lies ahead for autonomous vehicles. And from that perspective, both see a van-focused future of autonomous vehicles

Before taking the Bellevue post on May 1, Marshall was executive director of the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES). He has more than 30 years of experience working on energy and transportation issues, including serving as chief outside legal counsel to Puget Sound Power & Light as a partner at the law firm of Perkins Coie.  

It is CATES, now under the executive leadership of John Niles who replaced Marshall, that is helping guide the City of SeaTac through evaluation of a program employing driverless shuttle mini-buses or vans on City of SeaTac roads, providing supplementary service between Sea-Tac Airport and hotel locations.

Another example of what could emerge City of SeaTac activities would be small, quiet, electric shuttles connecting light rail stations and transit centers with residential neighborhoods.

Niles told me he is putting together recommendations that he calls an Action Plan that, once accepted by the staff of the SeaTac City Council, likely by the end of the year, would be available for review by citizens to make it ready for action by the council, probably in January.  

The effort by the City of SeaTac, which has charted for itself the goal of becoming a Center for Municipal Excellence, has gotten advance approval by both South Transit and Metro.

Approval by the SeaTac council would, as Niles explains it, be "steps on how to proceed on automated first-last mile small vehicle, driver-less automated transit for citizens to use to reach light rail stations, employment sites within City of SeaTac, and community centers and services."

"There will probably be a phase one pilot serving only part of the City," he added. "I am aiming for deployment of proven technology already tested elsewhere and proved to be safe."

In a comment directed at those concerned about driverless vehicles, Niles offered that the way his robotic micro-transit vehicles would work in SeaTac is with a control center keeping an eye out for trouble and dispatching help when needed."

Niles' comment addressed one of the key roadblocks to be overcome by the forces arrayed on behalf of an autonomous future, the concern of many drivers about the pervasive presence of vehicles without a driver. But other hurdles are already emerging in other states, concerns that will play out here, from forces restless about lost jobs like cab or truck drivers, auto repair and service businesses who won't have cars to repair and even insurance companies fearful of providing a product eventually not needed.

Part of the pushback could come from Sound Transit's board which is bound to see the early hints of buyers' remorse on the part of voters who approved ST-3 in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties last November grow as new unexpected costs emerge while development of the autonomous van fleet takes hold.

By 2022, almost two decades before ST-3's rail network is completed, clues to its obsolescence will be offered as that's the year the first van test for 100 autonomous vehicles is scheduled, likely opening the way for thousands of such vehicles on area highways, without public cost.

And the betting is that those who can summon a van to take them where they want to go for a small fee will likely not opt to queue up for a train, thus further diminishing the modest passenger-use expectations of Sound Transit.

Those whose reaction to ST-3 was a "how can they vote for this? Do they really think it's required of those who care about the environment to vote to create a network of trains?" may well react with amusement to the cost of ST-3 beyond just dollars becomes clear.

The fact that was never shared with voters but will be shared as the reality sets in is that the greenhouse gas generated over the years of construction will never be paid back by people riding a train rather than driving or being conveyed in a vehicle.

An intriguing development for emerging use of autonomous vehicles is the fact that Kemper Freeman's Kemper Development Co. and its Bellevue Square expects to begin next year offering customers, many assumedly loaded with purchases, an autonomous-vehicle ride back to their cars parked on site.

Marshall offers a whimsical view of past as prologue to public acceptance of autonomous travel. One is the case of his grandfather who, after working his Palouse fields on horseback all day, tied the reins to the saddle horn and slumped over to sleep on the way home, confident his horse could "drive" itself back to the barn.

Plus he offers the example of elevators. When the years of people greeting the operator as they entered for the ride up began to give way to elevators without operators, there were some passengers who fought off discomfort. Then automatic elevators became universal, to the point when, if a person is operating it, some people may wonder "is something wrong with this elevator?"

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