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Tech Showcase Conveys that Sacramento, Calif., Is Not All Talk When It Comes to Autonomous Vehicles

The capital city of California is using its leverage as the backyard of state regulators and its willingness to form partnerships to get driverless vehicle manufacturers to the table.

by / June 28, 2017
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Aligned outside the new Golden 1 Center, a series of autonomous vehicles (AVs) were on display the afternoon of June 27 to showcase the technology and how it may impact California's capital city in the future.

Sacramento is intent on positioning itself as a major player in the AV game. To that end, the city along with representatives from the state Legislature, industry partners and the Sacramento Kings launched the Autonomous Transportation Open Standards Lab (ATOS) earlier this year in order to “develop an open standards lab and a protocol that achieves the delicate balance between ensuring that this technology is safe and, at the same time, ensure a regulatory environment where we are not stifling innovation,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg told Government Technology in April.

And this showcase was a very public display to show that Sacramento is not all talk.

The full spectrum of AVs was on display: an Audi A7 sedan, a Chrysler minivan outfitted with Renovo self-driving software, an Otto autonomous big rig and an EasyMile driverless shuttle.

This demonstration showcases that Sacramento has the ability to bring companies in, said Chief Innovation Officer Louis Stewart.

“We’re trying to affect the conversation by bringing more awareness, more education and more visibility to the technology,” he added. “Companies a lot of the time have to come to Sacramento, to talk to regulators, but often don't know who they need to talk to. So we’re trying to position City Hall and Sacramento as that place that can be the connector.”

California has issued AV testing permits to more than 30 companies, including Apple, Waymo (the Google spin-off), Ford, General Motors and Tesla. “The state is the regulator,” said Stewart. “We want to have a role in the conversation where we give the companies and the regulators a place to meet so it's not all virtual.”

The city is taking a holistic approach to the issue. Recently the city entered into a partnership with Verizon to deploy a 5G network using small cell transmitting devices. While autonomous vehicles often use some combination of lidar sensors, radar and motion sensors, setting up infrastructure to enable communication with vehicles creates multiple redundancies in the system leading to better safety outcomes. Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication can also be used by connected non-autonomous cars to warn drivers of collisions or update traffic conditions.

Another part of the equation is creating the appropriate workforce that can work on and operate the next generation of vehicles.

“The city has started pushing on workforce side of the conversation," Stewart said. "We want to bring in community colleges, we want to bring in Sac State, UC Davis to the table, and have a conversation about the jobs of the future."

The hope is that this effort will lead Sacramento to have one of the most advanced workforces. “At least we can show what that pipeline looks like, from coding to cybersecurity to working on autonomous cars.”

During the announcement of the ATOS Lab, Kings owner and technology veteran Vivek Ranadive issued the King’s Challenge — he challenged the city to have 40 to 50 people arrive to the first Kings game of the season in an autonomous vehicle. While the Oct. 30 deadline is fast approaching and could incite panic other cities, Stewart said Sacramento is ready to meet the goal.

“We heard him loud and clear,” he added, noting that officials are in advanced talks to have 20 to 25 autonomous vehicles in the city by September. The end goal, however, is not about the Oct. 30 opening game, after which these AVs go back to wherever they are from, he explained — it is part a much larger effort to get a sustained presence of autonomous vehicle manufacturers working with the city, eventually deploying services to help residents and provide economic development opportunities.

“We want autonomous cars and connected cars to be synonymous with Sacramento," Stewart said.

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.