Editor's note: This article was posted on April 1 -- April Fools' Day. It is satire, and thus, while occasionally referencing reality, it does not represent the opinions or intended actions of any real people.
The "pilot" in Palo Alto's latest transportation experiment isn't a bus driver, a bicyclist or a cabbie but a computer chip embedded in a door panel of a miniature Prius slowly winding its way past the roundabouts of College Terrace.
Making its way around one circle, the car glides to a stop in the middle of the block to let a floating Ziplock bag waft past. It then accelerates, topping off at 15 mph, takes a right turn onto El Camino Real and proceeds to its final destination: a Jack in the Box.
Just before it pulls into the parking spot, though, a red light goes off and the car is once again on the move. A red light blinks and the words: "Overruled. New destination: Whole Foods" scroll across the dashboard.
The autonomous vehicle, which began making its experimental runs on Palo Alto's residential streets earlier this month, is part of a pilot program that the city has just launched in conjunction with Google -- a project that the City Council believes will put the city squarely in the driver's seat of the emerging trend. By next year, the city expects there will be 10,000 self-driving cars just like this one in Palo Alto. By 2018, officials expect these GPS-guided electric vehicles to outnumber traditional cars on city streets. And by 2019, the city plans to launch its most ambitious traffic initiative yet: a ban on driving personal vehicles.
In addition to ferrying residents to their destinations, each of these vehicles will be empowered to overrule its customer's decisions and encourage healthier and more sustainable habits. Its speed goes up to 45 mph when en route to the recycling center, a farmer's market, a gym or a City Hall meeting. For less benign pursuits, like trips to a bar or a fastfood shop, its speed would max out at 15 mph. The city will also have the ability to steer these cars away from destinations that the council deems unhealthy.
Termed "Project Carma," the program is the centerpiece of the city's new Sustainability/Climate Action Plan, a document that lays out the path for Palo Alto to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2030. The city released a draft of the plan Thursday evening, and the City Council is scheduled to review it at a special session Monday night.
As expected, the main focus of the new Sustainability Plan is transportation, which accounts for an estimated 52 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions and 87 percent of citizen complaints. The new plan includes 46 policies aimed at reducing traffic and alleviating parking congestion. None is expected to be more controversial than the "fuel switch" from traditional vehicles to self-driving vehicles.
"This is exactly the kind of bold, disruptive program that we need to be pursuing if we're to maintain our status as the world leader in the battle against climate change," Sustainability Manager Greg Fielding said in a new report. "It will allow us to both measure our residents' habits and, in subtle ways, nudge them toward greener habits."
The initiative, he noted, is also expected to improve local quality of life by getting cars off the road, thus alleviating the worsening congestion on major arteries like Charleston/Arastradero and Page Mill roads.
'Research shows that cars are the single biggest contributor to our city's traffic and parking problems," Fielding told the Weekly. "Making it illegal for people to drive cars is, we believe, the most logical, efficient and effective way to solve these problems."
The new Sustainability Plan notes that reducing the number of solo commuters has been the city's priority since at least 2014, when the council established as its goal a 30 percent decrease in single-occupant vehicles within three years. The plan cites a recent joint from the Department of Transportation and the Association of Bay Area Governments, which showed that in Santa Clara County, "cars make up 100 percent of the highway traffic during peak hours."
"Furthermore, a February 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control shows a strong correlation between moving vehicles and car collisions, road rage episodes, DUI convictions and speeding tickets," Fielding said. "This will be a way to eliminate all these problems in one fell swoop."
The Palo Alto City Council is banking on these self-driving and mildly judgmental electric vehicles to fill the vacuum in meeting residents' transportation needs once gas-fueled personal cars are made illegal. Under the new agreement with Google, Palo Alto will serve as the company's largest testing area for autonomous vehicles (the company has also been experimenting on a smaller scale in Mountain View; Austin, Texas; and Kirkland, Washington).
When the program starts, Palo Alto residents will be able to summon a Google car through a smartphone app and get charged on a per-mile basis, with the fees tacked on to their utility bills.At a recent meeting devoted to the city's sustainability policies, council members lauded self-driving vehicles as both the answer to the city's traffic woes and the best way to slash emissions.
"Our record with traffic reduction to be frank isn't stellar," Councilman Greg Smith said at the Feb. 6 meeting. "Our bike-share program is barely used, Page Mill Road is still a mess and those traffic signals in front of Paly are a lost cause. It's time to try something new."
Happy April Fools Day!