The unfortunate accident in Tempe, AZ, March 18 when an Uber autonomous Volvo SUV struck and killed a woman who was walking a bicycle across a darkened street has stirred a strong reaction, in this state and elsewhere, from both sides in the discussion about the national push toward a likely autonomous-vehicle future.
One the one hand, supporters who have fed the vision of that possible autonomous future point to what some see as Uber's effort to produce an autonomous fleet "on the cheap," employing too few lasers and radar sensors. They argue that the careful use of sensor-device clusters to detect objects in front of and around the autonomous vehicle is a key to the safety of the driverless cars.
On the other side are those who, for a variety of reasons, would love to slow the pace of progress of the autonomous-vehicle movement. Some are obviously concerned about safety, a group more likely to be from the older generation. But others don't want the disruption of existing transportation plans, i.e. progress on rail commute.
More than a few in the Puget Sound area, for example, are fearful that the move to autonomous vehicles could have a negative effect on their "train," the network of commuter rail lines that are part of the $54 billion ST3 transit package approved by the voters in November of 2016 as an environment-protecting alternative to increasing traffic congestion. To many of its apostles, the ST3 project is like the "Holy Rail," not merely a device to slow traffic congestion.
And thus one of the concerns among autonomous vehicle (AV) advocates is that ST3 and the Sound Transit board that oversees it will come to view autonomous vehicles as a threat to completion of the rail-based plan for the region and use its power and influence to delay or stall progress. After all, most predictions about AV's are that they could come to dominate commute-hours traffic even before ST3's projected 2041 completion date.
And in fact, national transportation officials have made it clear that if autonomous vehicles move as rapidly as anticipated toward a ubiquitous presence on streets and highways, there will be an impact on planned and existing rail-transit programs.
But at this point, Gov. Jay Inslee has put the full weight of his office behind an AV future. Inslee not only moved forcefully last summer to seek to put Washington State at the forefront of states welcoming an autonomous future and issued an executive order to allow and support testing of autonomous vehicles but reiterated that commitment last week.
Inslee told leaders of technology and business at the 20th anniversary of the Alliance of Angels investment group that "The future of transportation will be in Seattle," and he elaborated by saying the region is going to be "the autonomous vehicle center of the U.S."
Inslee seemed to be pushing back not only on those seeing the challenge for the future of autonomous travel in the Tempe fatal accident but also on an op-ed piece in that morning's Seattle Times by a think-tank "fellow" named Daniel Malarkey for an organization called Sightline Institute.
In the article, Malarkey referred to the governor's support as "ill-advised" and added, "the state gains little by allowing tech companies to test on public roads and put motorists and pedestrians at risk." He said: "The governor and state legislators should focus on developing policies to enable the rapid scaling of autonomous electric fleets as soon as we know they work."
It's frankly head-scratching to figure how Malarkey's thought process led him to his conclusions about "ill-advised."
And while I'm not a fan of putting down people you disagree with, I think the Times, in providing op-ed space for an individual to share thoughts over multiple newspaper inches, should share the background of the writer to provide reader perspective.
The Times either avoided sharing or lacked the institutional memory, to include that Malarkey's initial claim to fame in Seattle was as finance director of the ill-fated Seattle Monorail Project, from which he resigned in December of 2003 after revenues fell dramatically short of his projections and costs were underestimated. He resigned and the voters in November of 2005 said by a margin of 65 percent to 35 percent that they didn't want the project to continue.
It's from among the investment community that some of the most thoughtful support for an autonomous future for this state comes.
Madrona Venture Group, Seattle's best-recognized venture firm, issued a report last September sharing the prediction that autonomous vehicles won't merely play a major role in the region's transportation future but that AVs would come to dominate travel on I-5 between Seattle and Vancouver.
The report, issued by Madrona's founder and managing director Tom Alberg and Daniel Li, predicts that AV's will first share an HOV lane, then progress to having dedicated lanes and eventually be the sole mode of transportation on I-5 during major commute hours.
It's likely that the first formal program in the state will be in the City of SeaTac, the municipality that includes Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where the city council will be asked next month to approve a plan that would launch autonomous mini-vans on city streets.
The man who conceived the SeaTac program, John Niles is executive director of an organization called Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES). He is well known in the region as an opponent of Sound Transit, which he views as spending "vast sums of taxpayer money to make mobility worse," but now he wants to help SeaTac residents gain easy access to nearby light rail stations after 8 AM when the park-and-ride lots have no more spaces.
Niles, who helped produce the plan that he hopes the Sea-Tac City Council will endorse, as well as seek federal funding for, may be the most believable autonomous-vehicle proponent when he insists on safety first.
As a seven-year-old, he was run down in a crosswalk and almost killed. Thus when he says "slow speed is the way to go right now" with autonomous vehicle projects, he is totally credible.
"I'm not interested in testing but in deploying something," says Niles of the Sea-Tac project, which will involve vehicles already tested elsewhere and whose travels around the city will be at relatively slow speeds and constantly monitored in what he says will be "the most cautious first step possible."
In fact, Niles shared the conviction that Waymo, the Google autonomous-car development company, also has remote workers watching the on-street operation of its cars.
Waymo was spun out of Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc., and claims to have tested its autonomous vehicles in Kirkland, but more prominently in California and most recently in metro Phoenix, Arizona where more than 600 Chrysler Pacifica vans are planned to be operating by year-end in commercial robo-cab service.
One group that might be expected to be in push-back mode over the emergence of AV technology is the insurance industry as possibly expecting to lose business, but PEMCO Insurance President Stan McNaughton says he's hopeful accidents will be reduced by the AV technology.
Meanwhile, McNaughton said the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, on whose board he sits, "is putting a pile of money into the various systems, with the insurance industry building its own test centers, since at some point we will be rating these systems and we have to have a good understanding of them."
Autonomous-vehicle development has some powerful support in addition to the auto industry and tech companies who would benefit. One is Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, which points to another Arizona accident, this one involving a Google autonomous vehicle, as particularly relevant.
It was an accident in Chandler, AZ, in which a 25-year-old driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence after he ran into the rear of the Google car, whose driver was treated for a concussion.
The national advocacy group said the Chandler accident shows why the group supports the development of autonomous vehicles.