Portland Mayor Seeks to Shape Self-Driving Tech to Suit Needs City, Residents' Needs

Mayor Ted Wheeler said he would announce a framework to create a "fair and level playing field" for autonomous vehicle companies.

by Elliot Njus, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. / April 19, 2017

(TNS) -- Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Wednesday he wants the city to be "open for business" to companies developing autonomous vehicles.

Wheeler, speaking before the Portland Business Alliance on Wednesday, said autonomous vehicles are on the way, and that Portland should prepare for them. He said he would announce a framework to create a "fair and level playing field" for autonomous vehicle companies.

"We can't simply dismiss the idea that autonomous vehicles s are going to be a big part of our transportation system," Wheeler said. "Instead of waiting for this new technology to come here and and has us confront it, the responsible thing to do is to prepare for this future."

He said getting ahead of the issue would help Portland shape the technology to suit the needs of the city and its residents.

Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman are expected to elaborate on the plans in a press conference scheduled for 9 a.m.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the framework would open any, or all, of the city's public roads for testing, nor whether the city would work with any specific companies developing the vehicles.

But Wheeler said in a March city council meeting that he would like to see the city conduct a pilot focused on autonomous vehicles.

"We're all warming up for a race, but we don't know what the race is yet," he said at the earlier meeting. "We don't know what the trajectory of autonomous or linked vehicles will be and we don't have a clear understanding on what that means in terms of infrastructure and policy. But we know it's coming."

In his former role as deputy director for the transportation bureau, Wheeler chief of staff Maurice Henderson coordinated the city's bid to win the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge, a competition for $50 million to implement technologies that included autonomous and wirelessly connected vehicles. Columbus, Ohio, eventually won the competition.

Others on the City Council are skeptical. In the same city council meeting, Commissioner Amanda Fritz questioned whether the city should embrace self-driving cars.

"I think we need to take a step back," she said. "I'm concerned about a future where people go from morning to night not talking to anybody. You call yourself an autonomous vehicle, you go by yourself to pick up the groceries that have been collected for you. ... Is this something that we want?"

Autonomous vehicles are already on the streets in some states that have explicitly legalized testing.


Legacy carmakers are making major pushes into self-driving technology, including testing on contained course and road tests.

They're also competing with Silicon Valley. Companies like Google's Waymo and Uber have made headway -- and headlines -- by testing their self-driving vehicles in public. Tesla, too, is testing fully automated vehicles, and it's made its "Autopilot" adaptive cruise control available to customers.

Portland-based Daimler Trucks North America is also testing self-driving semi trucks in Nevada.

Carmakers say the hardware necessary for self-driving cars is available today; it's the software that needs to catch up, primarily by putting their cars through millions of miles of road tests.

They've have pushed for a national framework of laws, hoping to avoid dealing with a patchwork of regulations that might force self-driving cars to turn the wheel over to a human at some state borders.

The Obama administration was bullish on self-driving cars, and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released guidelines last year intended to help foster the industry while strictly regulating it for safety.

The Trump administration's transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, said she was reviewing those guidelines, but said self-driving cars could dramatically improve traffic safety.

Wheeler and Saltzman testified earlier this year against a bill that would have ordered the state transportation department to regulate autonomous vehicles. They said the bill would override city authority and prematurely authorize the widespread use of automated vehicles.

But the city has previously sought grant money to pursue pilots related to self-driving cars. It's offered Portland International Raceway as a test track, and it's proposed self-driving circulating shuttles to supplement existing transit service in parts of the city.

©2017 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.