This Week in Civic Tech: Tesla Investigates Self-Driving City Transit, Federal Bill Raises Open Data Expectations

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / April 21, 2016
Elon Musk speaks at a TED Conference in 2013. Flickr/TED Conference

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Tesla Investigates Self-Driving City Transit

At an April 21 transportation conference in Norway, Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed company plans to fabricate a self-driving vehicle it sees as a traffic-reducing alternative to public transit. Electrek, an electric transit blog, reported that the news was less of an announcement and more of a carefully-worded teaser of a secret Tesla project under development.

“We have an idea for something which is not exactly a bus, but would solve the density problem in intercity situations,” Musk said. “I think we need to rethink the whole concept of public transport and create something that people are actually gonna like a lot more. I don’t want to talk too much about it.”

Musk said autonomous vehicle technology would be at the heart of the vehicle, and that it's a distinct development project completely separate from Tesla initiatives like the Hyperloop — an experimental passenger pod to transport people at supersonic speeds. In his remarks, he went on to say that this “new type of car” would be able to “actually take people to their final destination and not just to the bus stop.”

While innovative, such a solution may be more iterative than groundbreaking. In San Francisco, the ride-hailing startup Chariot — which also eschews the term “bus” or “vans” for its vehicles — crowdsources its routes, and pickup and dropoff locations by customers. Meanwhile, big transportation network company Lyft has launched Lyft Line, which dynamically matches passengers to drivers heading in the same direction and destination. Likewise, Bloomberg has reported that billionaire Warren Buffet has also sponsored an all-electric busing system in the city of Seattle. 

Musk’s solution may be an iterative adaption of each technology, creating the first electric passenger vehicle that is both autonomous and dynamically routed.

Federal Bill Raises Open Data Expectations

A criticism that holds true for most data transparency policies is that they are weak. Whether city, state or federal, government open data policies — while passed with the best intentions — are often aspirational rather than operational reforms. They are not legally binding and have no punitive measures if departments fail to comply.

Largely, this soft policymaking stems from open data’s newness. Governments have desired to test its merits, to see if citizens benefit, services improve, and how costly open data portals are to construct and maintain. Yet with open data’s growing acceptance as a basic utility for service, accountability and sheer performance, federal legislators have increased pressure to compel agencies to adopt open data both in principle and in practice.

On April 14, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Washington, and Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, introduced the Open Public Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act. The two lawmakers submitted the law to Congress as a tool to force those on the fence into action. The legislation manages this by turning President Obama’s 2013 executive order mandating open data by default into a legally binding policy. Similarly, it requires federal agencies to maintain an inventory of their data sets, and nationally, to maintain Data.gov, the centralized database for U.S. open data.

The Data Coalition, an open data lobbying group that supports the bill, said in a blog post that while the legislation could not transform agencies overnight, it would act as an instrument for transparency advocates to open agency data piece-by-piece. Further, the Data Coalition said excessively long delays or refusals might be branded as “legally questionable” under the law.

If the OPEN Government Data Act continues to gain bipartisan support, it will be the second national open data law passed in the country. The Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act is the first, and when signed into law in 2014, it officially mandated that agencies publish their expenditures online and in a standardized machine-readable format. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, have committed to introducing a companion bill in the Senate.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.