This Week in Civic Tech: Tesla Sets Time Frame for Transit Bus Release, Activists Turned Entrepreneurs on the Rise

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

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 to Manufacture Buses, Semi Trucks

Transportation departments and agencies looking to upgrade their fleets' transit vehicles may consider buying a Tesla. The Verge reports that in an investor call, Tesla Founder Elon Musk said the company plans to produce an autonomous “Tesla Semi” and transit bus. These, along with a compact SUV, are set for release in 2017, with full production yet to be determined.

“We expect to unveil those for the middle of next year, maybe the next six to nine months type of thing," Musk said. "And then [we’d] have a better, more fleshed-out plan for when those would enter production."

With electric buses already in circulation in many cities across the U.S., Tesla’s entry into the market is not unexpected. Even so, Musk’s intentions to autonomize these services may stir added scrutiny. Regulators are still processing potential industry and policy implications from a fatal crash
last May when a Tesla Model S collided with a tractor trailer. Despite the crash, Tesla claims the autonomous “Autopilot” navigation systems are roughly 10 times safer than human drivers.

When the autonomous feature is eventually deployed in cities, it may present a number of civic tech applications. The startup Veniam uses city vehicle fleets to as a delivery network for city Wi-Fi; Google has used its Google Earth cars to detect air quality in San Francisco and Los Angeles; and transit innovation labs, like the one at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, leverage the bus network to support number of civic tech transportation apps and experiments.

Activists Turned Entrepreneurs on the Rise

When lobbying, fundraising and grassroots advocacy don’t work to realize social change, some turn to entrepreneurship — a belief that’s gaining popularity in Silicon Valley as more than a few progressives look to the private sector for solutions. Inc. observed this trend in a recent article that highlighted success stories from former activists turned entrepreneurs.

Among the lineup of startups Inc.
showcased was Jopwell, a recruiting firm that handles tech sector job placement for African American, Native American and Hispanic job seekers; LendUp fights predatory lending by offering low-interest loans to low-income earners; Aspiration serves the middle class by providing pay-what’s-fair investment consulting; and Honor helps elderly residents stay in their homes with an app for on-demand in-home aides.

This shift is attributed to the dearth of legislation sitting in Congress, which has passed fewer than 200 laws since 2015. It was also suggested that the private sector's penchant for scalable solutions, quick decision-making and independent revenue sources are palpable incentives to advocates who’ve struggled to work through regulatory and bureaucratic red tape.

Government Technology has previously covered impact investors like Omidyar Network, Google Ventures, the Knight Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and others that are supercharging such work with sizable dollars. There are also many incubators that have popped up in recent years to further such aims. And Tumml, based in San Francisco, has cultivated what it calls “urban impact” entrepreneurs within its incubators program.

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