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San Jose, Calif., Releases Autonomous Vehicle RFI

The Bay Area city is looking to implement several autonomous vehicle pilot projects on its streets to determine how the technology can be integrated into the entire transportation ecosystem.

While San Jose, Calif., may lie in the heart of Silicon Valley, city hall has not emulated the innovation of its neighbors. Mayor Sam Liccardo, however, is working to reverse that trend in a few ways: moving to close the digital divide, expanding digital services and most recently, kick-starting the launch of autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot projects in specified corridors within the city.

“We launched the smart city vision a year ago with the focus on making San Jose safer, more user-friendly, more sustainable and more equitable,” Liccardo told Government Technology. “We see autonomous vehicles providing solutions on several of those fronts.”

The city released a request for information (RFI), imploring technology companies to use the city and its assets as a demonstration site. The RFI identifies five corridors the city is hoping AV technology can help provide mobility options to the underserved, offer alternative modes to incentivize drivers off the road and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“We knew this technology could be extremely impactful to our multi-modal system and to our transportation ecosystem,” said innovation program manager Jill North, who works within the city’s Department of Transportation. “We wanted to be a part of helping that innovation develop and be a part of helping them test, especially given our location as a city."

The technology is still so new, explained North, that the RFI is really about how AVs would not only operate on real public roads, but also how they would interact with other moving factors. Whether companies propose autonomous shuttles to help alleviate first-mile/last-mile transportation issues or AVs in a ride-summoning system, North is convinced that the city will receive some great proposals.

The process began earlier this year when AV companies met with city officials to lay the groundwork for the RFIs. “We simply don't know enough about the technology and how it will impact the transportation ecosystem,” said North. 

Because transportation in the real world is not subject to silos, San Jose has encouraged smart infrastructure companies to team up with AV companies to submit plans about how the two technologies could work in conjunction with one another. “We are really interested in how technology can build off each other to create the ideal scenario.”

While other cities have already introduced AVs, San Jose is less concerned about the race and more focused on the outcome. “We’re not the first to have autonomous vehicles in our city, but we want to be one of the first to do it right,” she said.

There are so many potential benefits that come with the introduction of AVs, such as greater mobility for seniors and persons with disabilities, the decrease in traffic congestion and the increase in safety just to name a few. One major benefit is the data-gathering ability.

Each vehicle gathers thousands of data points a minute about traffic flow, ridership statistics and road conditions. “Autonomous vehicles are basically a set of eyes and ears on the road,” North said, adding that any data collected in the pilot is crucial to planning out how the transportation ecosystem should be designed over the next 10 to 20 years. “We are creating that dialog around a possible data exchange so that we’re able to get that information we need, so that we can better plan for our transportation needs.”

San Jose remains committed to ensuring that the public is not subjected to the raw end of a deal and is shut out of the data.

Liccardo expanded on this idea, mentioning how any agreement with a vendor needs to operate as a true partnership. The city is not going to enter into a pilot where a specific company owns all the data and is unwilling to share it with local agencies, he said. Drawing lessons from the complicated relationship between Pittsburgh and Uber, Liccardo wants to ensure that any ridership data is made available to the cities.

Also crucial to the city is ensuring that the needs of marginalized residents is met. “We’ve had a very deliberate strategy of making San Jose a test bed and a demonstration platform for innovative technologies that local companies want to beta test or prototype,” said Liccardo. With that, the city can ensure that the terms of quality provided are dictated by the city and not private companies. “We want to be very deliberate in ensuring that disruption comes with real public benefit.”

Of the five corridors identified, “One of them is linking a homeless shelter for veterans to some of the key transit centers in the city, understanding the high rate of disability many of those vets have,” explained Liccardo. If we can better serve that population, that is truly the quality the city is looking for.

San Jose is hoping its RFI process and eventual program implementation can provide a model for the rest of the country. “We want to take the opportunity we have and help everyone else at the same time,” said North. “The more cities that can know and learn from this, the better.”

Liccardo echoed those sentiments. “We know autonomous vehicle technology is on its way, it's inevitable. It will undoubtedly pop up in places that will leave disruptive impact,” he said, adding that he hopes that “this proactive approach to autonomous vehicles can provide an example of how cities can get out in front of technologies and ensure that we drive the technology toward public value.”

The city will hold a Responder Conference on June 22, 2017. Submissions are due by July 28, 2017.

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.

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