Various self-driving car programs make progress across Washington

Mar 15, 2023, 7:46 AM | Updated: 11:25 am
(Zoox, Inc. via AP)...
(Zoox, Inc. via AP)

(Zoox, Inc. via AP)

Whatever happened to self-driving cars? A few years ago, it seemed like there was a news story about them almost every day.

Back in 2016, Elon Musk said he’d have a Tesla that could drive itself coast-to-coast by 2017. After that, Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered state agencies like the Department of Licensing, WSDOT, and the State Patrol to prepare for self-driving vehicles on the roadways.

Bellevue to be testing ground for self-driving cars

So, state agencies created an Autonomous Vehicle Testing Certification program.

But news stories about self-driving vehicles were then relatively scarce until a few self-driving cars crashed. In February, Tesla issued a recall of more than 300,000 cars due to problems with their self-driving software.

As it turns out, the state and some cities have been working on plans for the future of self-driving cars, buses, and vehicles of all types.

Transportation teams from Bellevue and Seattle spent more than a year examining every aspect of self-driving cars or Automated Vehicles, or AVs for short.

They wanted to learn what kinds of rules will be needed to operate them, what the public thinks about AVs, if city streets can handle them, how safe they will be, as well as just about every use and contingency.

These two teams combined their efforts to release their joint Strategic Vision for AVs in Seattle and Bellevue, who just presented their findings to the Washington Transportation Commission.

Daniel Lai is the project lead for the City of Bellevue, he says we might realistically first see AVs come into actual use in a circular shuttle system. They’re already being used on some college campuses and medical complexes around the country.

And Lai says after that, “Some of the earlier applications of AVs will likely be in the form of ride-hail services. We know that there’s been a lot of active deployments in other states like California and Arizona as well.”

Lai says this technology could be ready relatively soon, “I think those are within 5 years, I would say. There are good data points, good examples of those two applications already happening across the nation.”

There are also pilot program shuttle services operating in places like Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and Greensboro, North Carolina.

But Lai and other local leaders agree that it will take a bit longer before we see actual self-driving cars on the roadway.

“Every estimate of when AVs would come to our public roadways has been wrong thus far. The data’s always been pushed back,” Lai said.

There is testing happening right now, too, maybe you’ve seen the Zoox cars, those self-driving cars from Amazon’s subsidiary? They’re being tested on Seattle’s city streets right now.

Those are mostly automated, listed as “Level 3” out of 5 levels–by the Society of Automotive Engineers. They must have a driver behind the wheel who can take over if conditions require it.  But otherwise, those cars are driving themselves.

Here in Washington state, though, we’re not seeing a lot of testing happening elsewhere. And some cities have banned it outright, though most have not even started to address the issue.

The problem with that, Lai says, is the concern the technology will be ready before communities can handle them.

“If we don’t manage the technology, there’s a good chance that some of those goals may not be met,” Lai said. “And those goals relate to safety, sustainability, and providing equitable transportation.”

It’s important to note the certification process is already in place at the state level. That means the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) is already telling AV companies they can go ahead and test. Beau Perschbacher is the Legislative and Policy Director for the DOL clarified the situation.

“If you’re operating anywhere in Washington, you have to self-certify if you’re doing testing,” Perschbacher said. “If you’re operating in specific local jurisdictions that require regulation, you must comply with those regulations.”

So, any city that’s banned testing is actually ahead of the game.

“The state program allows you to operate statewide,” Perschbacher said. “But, locals are authorized under the law to impose their own regulations in their specific jurisdictions.”

There is no deadline for communities to come up with their own rules — something Daniel Lai says is good news.

“Thankfully, we have some time because there’s not been a company that has signaled, at least to Bellevue, that they’re going to be bringing any commercial operations here,” Lai said. “But, we’ve seen a lot of other deployments across the nation that are helping us to formulate our ideas in different policies managing AVs.”

And though it’s hard to predict exactly when self-driving cars will begin sharing the roadways, people are becoming warier of them.

AAA just released its annual Automated Vehicle Survey and shared the percentage of drivers who say they are now afraid of AVs has risen from 55% in 2022 to 68%in 2023.

The Automobile Association couldn’t say why people are more afraid of them, but it’s possible people have different ideas of what self-driving vehicles actually are and how they might interact with them.

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Various self-driving car programs make progress across Washington