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Sacramento, Calif., Is Creating a Reference Architecture to Scale Up Autonomous Vehicles

As all the levels of government align to push California's capital to become the next hub of self-driving vehicles, the city is setting up standards and protocols to help developers figure out how to scale their technology.

“The message from all of us, was simply this: We are all in,” said Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Darrell Steinberg, recounting his meeting with public agencies, elected leaders and representatives from industry stakeholders discussing the plan to begin testing and deploying autonomous vehicles (AV) on city streets and freeways.

Gathered at the Golden 1 Center in downtown on April 19, Steinberg along with U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé announced their vision for why AV deployment makes sense for Sacramento. Steinberg and Matsui met last December with state Sen. Richard Pan and others to announce the city’s interest in developing a testing hub for self-driving vehicles and the creation of a working group to explore how to make this happen.

Four months later the coalition that was formed, the Autonomous Transportation Open Standards Lab (ATOS), presented a vision for the city’s leadership on autonomous vehicles to car manufacturers, transportation network companies, policy experts and regional agencies.

ATOS, the consortium of policymakers from local, state and federal government as well as representatives from private industry, is hoping to “develop an open standards lab and a protocol that achieves the delicate balance between ensuring that this technology is both safe and at the same time, ensure a regulatory environment where we are not stifling innovation,” said Steinberg.

“This organization is the first in the United States dedicated to speed the development of autonomous vehicle technology,” wrote Ranadivé in a Medium post. “We are creating the HTTP of autonomous vehicles — an open source platform that ensures city governments and private companies have a standardized and interoperable platform to build upon.”

The first standard that will always take precedence is safety, Steinberg told Government Technology. This technology has the potential to radically lessen the chance of serious injuries or fatalities caused by vehicle crashes. Citing that 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error, he said there is a tremendous opportunity that Sacramento can take advantage of.

Additionally Steinberg does not want to see the technology exclusively benefiting the wealthy. As the technology progresses, explained the mayor, we need to ensure that we “don't forget that as we scale this technology, that we are cognizant of serving communities and neighborhoods that have limited mobility options.”

Sacramento has “started creating a reference architecture,” said Ranadivé at the event. "We are creating a stack of what we need to do in order to make the city able to accommodate autonomous vehicles."

“Developing a set of protocols in the capital city can also create a bridge to help state policymakers and regulators adapt and amend their own views of how to regulate this new industry,” Steinberg said.

Among the factors that make Sacramento a desirable destination for AV testing — including the area's temperate weather, proximity to Silicon Valley and diverse population — Steinberg, Matsui and Ranadivé highlighted three: The physical size of the city and its downtown grid create an ideal testing environment, the city is home to state regulators and policymakers, and there is widespread support.

Steinberg referred to Sacramento as the "Goldilocks" of cities, saying, “It’s not too big, it’s not too small." Sacramento is the “perfect petri dish to not only test this new technology, but show how it can be brought to scale.”

The city is rapidly expanding its technological repertoire. Verizon recently chose Sacramento to help pilot its 5G network. The city also announced it’s a lead contender for a $44 million investment in renewable energy technology by Volkswagen to compensate for the company's 2015 emissions scandal. Both these projects “demonstrate that others are seeing Sacramento as a place to test new technology,” said Steinberg.

Having the state Capitol "at our backdoor" is perphaps the greatest draw for AV manufacturers, according to Matsui. “[Sacramento] has never taken advantage of its physical proximity to the center of state and national policymaking,” said Steinberg. We are within “walking distance to policymakers and regulatory bodies.”

As all the players get on board for turning the city into an epicenter for AV testing and deployment, there remain questions about liability and insurance. As a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Matsui is in a unique position to help guide the city through any federal regulatory hurdles. “We want to be first, and we want to be best,” she said. “This is not a pipe dream”

Ranadivé even issued the King’s Challenge for the city. He is hoping to see 40 to 50 people (including himself, Matsui and Steinberg) driven in an AV to the first Kings game of the 2017-2018 season, which will begin in late October.

As a short-term goal that is great, said Steinberg. But he would like to see some serious progress within the next five years. He hopes the city can take advantage of the technology and “see at least one if not more [public agencies] employing this technology.”

“We’re not afraid to be audacious.”

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.