News

Palo Alto hopes to speed up deployment of self-driving cars

Council committee calls for making the city a testing area for autonomous vehicles

Should the streets of Palo Alto become the newest testing ground for self-driving cars?

For several members of the City Council, as well as for City Manager James Keene, the answer is a resounding "yes."

That was made clear last month, when the council's Policy and Services Committee voted to adopt as one of the city's top lobbying priorities the authorization of Palo Alto as a place for autonomous-vehicle testing. The full council will have a chance to discuss and officially approve the list of legislative priorities on Jan. 9.

During its Nov. 29 discussion, the committee voted to approve four "active advocacy items" -- issues on which members believed progress can be made in the short term. (Other goals, including Proposition 13 reform, privacy-protection measures and promotion of renewable energy, were on a separate list of less time-sensitive "important priorities.")

All three committee members agreed that making Palo Alto a place for autonomous-vehicle testing should be on the top of the list.

The initiative was proposed by Committee Chair Tom DuBois and quickly embraced by Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Liz Kniss. During its discussion, committee members agreed that helping to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles would both help the city solve its congestion problems and shore up its reputation for innovation.

"We can actually create a shuttle system or autonomous-vehicle system that can pick you up or can pick four people up -- there could be a whole host of things that can work to get people our of cars if we can pilot this in our city," Scharff said.

The committee's decision to make autonomous vehicles a top priority was somewhat unexpected, given that the full council has only mentioned the technology in passing as part of broader discussions about transportation-demand management and environmental sustainability.

By contrast, the other three "active advocacy items" had been discussed at length by the council over the past year. They are: provision of affordable housing for public employees; implementation of a carbon tax that could be used to fund congestion-relief measures; and exempting tipped employees from minimum-wage requirements.

The decision also comes at a time when several car giants are pushing forward their own autonomous-vehicle efforts. Tesla Motors, which is based in Palo Alto, announced in October that all of the cars that are now being produced have self-driving hardware installed.

"Full autonomy will enable a Tesla to be substantially safer than a human driver, lower the financial cost of transportation for those who own a car and provide low-cost on-demand mobility for those who do not," the company stated in an announcement.

Less than two miles away from Tesla's headquarters on Deer Creek Road, the Ford Research and Innovation Center is advancing its own effort to deploy self-driving Fusion Hybrid vehicles. In 2013, the Michigan-based company partnered with Stanford University to develop the new technology. According to Ford's announcement, its Palo Alto team has also developed a virtual-test environment to "test algorithms such as traffic sign recognition in dynamic driving situations."

"This allows for more aggressive time lines for validating driving algorithms to prepare for on-road testing," the company's website states.

In addition to companies like Honda and General Motors, which are also pursuing autonomous vehicles, Bay Area tech giants like Google, Apple and Uber are doing the same. Just in the past week, Google was discussing a partnership involving its self-driving technologies with Honda, according to Bloomberg News, while Uber shipped its self-driving fleet to Arizona after failing to get the needed permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

In embracing self-driving cars, Palo Alto officials pointed to the example set by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which recently succeeded in getting a law passed to allow testing of fully autonomous vehicles (current state law already allows testing of semi-autonomous vehicles, which must have a steering wheel, brakes and a person present inside). Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill in September.

Scharff, who said he is "all in" when it comes to autonomous vehicles, said he would like to see Santa Clara County pursue a similar approach. Even if the testing area is confined to just Palo Alto, Scharff said he would support that.

"I think that would be really great for Palo Alto, and really great for our area," Scharff said.

City Manager James Keene agreed.

"We have a number of major car companies and startups in town that really are probably on the pioneering frontier of autonomous vehicles," Keene said. "The need to actually be able to test drive in real life is a critical component of being able to accelerate the uptake on that.

"It seems as part of our brand identity as a city, as a center of innovation, and our interest in dealing with the congestion issues that we've got to be thinking about that," Keene said.

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Comments

3 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2016 at 9:14 am

Good to see Palo Alto taking this step. Hopefully, other local cities will follow suit.


18 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 29, 2016 at 9:29 am

I think robot cars have a lot of potential, but please make sure they are very safe before unleashing them on the public. We've all seen the videos of self-driving UBERs running red lights and almost nailing pedestrians in crosswalks in San Francisco. Granted, regular UBERs also run red lights regularly, but do we really need to add to the danger?


32 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Dec 29, 2016 at 9:37 am

Can they be tested elsewhere? Palo Alto roads are already too crowded.


32 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 29, 2016 at 10:04 am

Just what we need, more cars crawling along at the speed limit and mowing down bicycles running red lights.


27 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 29, 2016 at 10:16 am

We can actually create a shuttle system or autonomous-vehicle system that can pick you up or can pick four people up -- there could be a whole host of things that can work to get people our of cars if we can pilot this in our city," Scharff said.

Why can't we do this right now with live drivers?


2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2016 at 10:29 am

> Why can't we do this right now with live drivers?

Obviously, this can be done now, but at great expense. Reducing short and long-term costs for providing these sorts of services is the goal.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2016 at 10:36 am

I believe we already have them here. Drive along Middlefield near Cubberley any day of the week, any time of day, and you will see at least one.


22 people like this
Posted by Julian
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 29, 2016 at 10:42 am

I'm fine with it, as long as I'm PERSONALLY paid for being forced into being a lab rat. Paying the city is useless - it's my time getting wasted by these corporations, I want to get paid for it.


10 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 29, 2016 at 10:46 am

I think it will be a long time (20 years or more) before self-driving cars are cheaper than UBER or taxis or shuttle busses.


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 29, 2016 at 11:29 am

Self-driving Shuttles/buses:
Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

Self-driving shuttles exist today.


25 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Dec 29, 2016 at 12:42 pm

@parent (Old Palo Alto #1):

There's this little ol' company called Google here in neighboring Mountain View that has been testing self-driving cars for years. They seem to be fairly safe. Personally, I see these cars as safer than your average new teen driver.

Excessive speed is one of the top causes of accidents, injury and death, and Google's self-driving cars show a marked tendency to drive slowly. Heck, if they help slow down traffic on city streets, that's likely a positive, not a negative.

Anyhow, if you ever come to Mountain View, please obey traffic laws and do not unnecessarily gawk at the Google self-driving cars if you are behind the wheel yourself.

Thank you.


6 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 29, 2016 at 12:46 pm

Self-driving cars can't be any bigger hazard than the drivers already on our streets. I'm all for it. And maybe this is City Hall's long-range plan instead of having a traffic enforcement department--pass an ordinance that all cars within Palo Alto must be self-driving. Should make it easier for all of us. : )


5 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 29, 2016 at 3:14 pm

@parent -- the Uber car shown running a red light in SF was under human control at the time and the driver was suspended. Of all of the self-driving car hours monitored, their safety record exceeds humans because it is programmed to follow the law (e.g., stop of red lights, stop signs, drive the speed limit, keep safe distance).


21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 29, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Why should we accelerate giving our souls to robots? There is no evidence that self-drivig systems are superior to human intuition.

This is really just Google trying to spread it's tendrils.

We don't need self-driving cars. Please go away with your fruity, pointless creations. We don't need more regressive technology.


17 people like this
Posted by ick
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 29, 2016 at 3:59 pm

Palo Alto is the last place to test drive driverless cars, Google's or other's.
Crowded, narrow streets for the most part.
Filled with children.
Many bikes.
What do we - Palo Alto residents - get from this? Zero.
Google should stick to their own paid-for territory over on Moffett Field.


10 people like this
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Dec 29, 2016 at 4:20 pm

I'm all for it as long as Council views it as a tightly regulated revenue stream, with contracts that fairly compensate the citizens of Palo Alto for the use of their resources. These contracts should strictly define what activities are permitted, and set limits that prevent adding any burden to Palo Alto's already strained transportation systems. "No net new trips!" and "What's in it for the people of Palo Alto?" must be part of every negotiation.


8 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 29, 2016 at 4:20 pm

jh is a registered user.

If council members can convince residents that they have identified a solution to traffic congestion, those on the council who are pro-commercial development (Lis Kniss, Greg Scharff, Adrian Fine, Greg Tanaka, and usually Cory Wolbach if a couple of token housing units are included) can justify supporting a faster increase of new office buildings.


14 people like this
Posted by More cars, not less
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 29, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Maybe self driving cars are safer than teen drivers, but teens like driving and this will not get them off the road.
It will ADD to total traffic.

If the City Manager is enthusiastic about self driving cars, maybe it is because the developers like them, they provide an excuse to pretend they will reduce traffic.
No proof, just a new argument.


21 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 29, 2016 at 6:51 pm

The part of the article that caught my attention has nothing to do with cars.

Did anyone else catch the "important priority" of Proposition 13 reform?

The Weekly would serve us well by reporting the kind of reform our leaders plan to lobby for.


7 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 29, 2016 at 7:12 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@More cars, not less - most teens like the freedom and independence that a car allows. A self driving car will give them that and even more because they can safely and legally be on snapchat while being driven, they won't be subject to the driving curfew, and they won't have to worry about the police (speeding, drinking, etc..).

But I agree that this should not be allowed to be an excuse for more development. I'm very optimistic about self driving cars, but it doesn't mean less traffic. Could be more traffic problems, but fewer parking problems.


16 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 29, 2016 at 7:13 pm

How about making it a priority -- or delivering on that promise -- to have fix the traffic light timing to recognize when cars are stuck at intersections with absolutely NO movement in any direction? Didn't we already pay $3,000,000 for that "promise"?

Maybe we should fix the real problems that already exist and trying t solve them before taking on "sexy" new "challenges" and making them a "priority"?


13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 29, 2016 at 8:14 pm

"Obviously, this [self-driving on-demand shuttlecars] can be done now, but at great expense. Reducing short and long-term costs for providing these sorts of services is the goal."

You're on. Show us how the live-driver and robo-driver options pencil out. Include capital, labor, and maintenance costs. Fact-backed numbers only, please.

Meantime, if on-demand shuttlecars are such a great idea, why not just initiate the service right now with live drivers? Why wait?


14 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

"if on-demand shuttlecars are such a great idea, why not just initiate the service right now"

Isn't that basically what Uber and Lyft are?


2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 30, 2016 at 9:09 am

> Show us how the live-driver and robo-driver options pencil out.
> Include capital, labor, and maintenance costs. Fact-backed
> numbers only, please.

Given that little of this sort of information is generally available, there is no way to prove this argument, one way or another. The self-driving hardware/software is still in late Alpha/early Beta phases, so it's not available as off-the-shelf products.

However, we can get a sense of how much it costs to hire a shuttle driver in our area--
Shuttle Bus Driver Salary in San Jose, CA
Web Link

The link suggests that shuttle drivers in SJ are paid in the $40K range. Part time drivers would be paid less. That number probably does not consider benefits, or company overhead.

Given a ten-year window, labor costs for one driver would come to as much as $500,000--which are expenses that will not be spent for a driverless vehicle. One could argue that yearly software updates might add a new cost to the equation, but those costs are yet to even be estimated.

Hard not to see how driverless vehicles will be less costly to operate in the commercial domain.


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 30, 2016 at 10:06 am

The highest expenses for most businesses are those for staffing. As we become more and more dependent on technology the jobs are being lost by those now able to function by machine. The most obvious example to me is the self checkout at many stores. Various places, like Kohls for example, it is impossible to find a member of staff walking around to help with customer service and there seems to be an unspoken code of customer loyalty that one customer helps another with items high on a shelf or answering simple questions such as restroom location.

It is extremely easy to program a vehicle to move around a stationary course. What is more difficult to program is where the obstacles in that course move at what is likely to be more unpredictable movements. That is where the technology has to improve as even something like a green traffic light can change for unexpected reasons.

I was driving in slow moving traffic on Middlefield in Mountain View recently following a Google car. We were traveling at the same speed as an average bike alongside us and as happens in such traffic the cars overtook the bike and then had to stop while the bike then overtook those cars. It was interesting to watch how the bike passed the Google car. The bike kept well within the narrow bike lane and stopped at the yellow light. It was interesting to me to note that the Google car's presence made all traffic act predictably and within the letter of the law.

I suspect that having more selfdriving vehicles around will make the rest of the traffic subconsciously act completely within the law and within predictable parameters.


7 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 30, 2016 at 1:34 pm

"Given a ten-year window, labor costs for one driver would come to as much as $500,000--which are expenses that will not be spent for a driverless vehicle. One could argue that yearly software updates might add a new cost to the equation, but those costs are yet to even be estimated."

True on both counts, but there's more to consider. As you and @Joe point out, we do not know the costs of driverless vehicles because none is in commercial production yet. New kinds of expenses will doubtless occur. Software, especially novel software like this, is continually upgraded; somebody has to be paid to develop, distribute, and monitor it. Factor that into operating costs.

Then there's hacking. Hoo boy. Many modern cars are already connected and demonstrated hackable. Will passengers trust themselves to a car that might suddenly get hijacked by Cozy Bear or the like? Will they trust totally driverless cars after such an incident occurs somewhere in the world? Will public driverless shuttle cars therefore need live backup drivers to backstop hacks, in which case why not just have live drivers and save the costs of sensors, computers, software, and servos?

To my original question: if on-demand shuttles are such a great idea, why not pilot the scheme with live-driver cars, to gauge the demand and benefits?

I'll tell you why not. Decades ago VTA offered point-to-point on-call van service. It failed due a combination of low demand and thus low revenue.

Finally, wasn't BART originally going to operate driverless, on rails, in a highly controlled environment, with massive computer oversight? That was 45 years ago, yet Web Link. "The best laid plans of mice and men... "


10 people like this
Posted by Single rider
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 31, 2016 at 1:48 am

Perfect -- no more need for public transit. My own carpool of 1, in privacy and comfort.

This won't take cars off our crowded streets -- it'll just increase our tolerance for bad traffic -- at least for those who can afford it.


6 people like this
Posted by Steve Dabrowski
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 31, 2016 at 4:11 pm

I see these self driving bubble cars on Middlefield all the time and the most notable impression is of impatient drivers zooming around them at the first opportunity!


Like this comment
Posted by More cars, not less
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 1, 2017 at 12:06 am

> Decades ago VTA offered point-to-point on-call van service. It failed due a combination of low demand and thus low revenue.<

I remember this well. Seemed like such a good idea, but I didn't need it and apparently a lot of others didn't use it either.

Whether driverless cars become popular with people, as distinct from big corporations remains to be seen. The hype is huge, especially by development advocates, but the actual usage is years in the future.
In the meantime how about more school busses, and synchronized lights, as others have suggested/


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 1, 2017 at 7:38 am

Interesting BBC article on the future of driving Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 1, 2017 at 10:22 am

I am definitely in support of advancing car technology, instead of acting like a "solo driver" is something bad. Flying cars i.e. use of vertical space is the true solution to congestion.

Please, please abolish HOV lanes forever and give us Lexus lanes so the freeways move more logically & efficiently.


6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 1, 2017 at 12:38 pm

"Flying cars i.e. use of vertical space is the true solution to congestion."

Further advantage: collisions will be easy to clear from the traffic lanes. All the debris will crash to the ground.

Anybody want to form a startup to build shatterproof domes over houses and yards?


4 people like this
Posted by Donald
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 4, 2017 at 11:18 am

If a child jumps in front of a driver-less car, the car is programmed to keep the occupants in the vehicle safe before objects outside the vehicle. Just food for thought.


9 people like this
Posted by disneyland
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 4, 2017 at 11:22 pm

driverless cars should be in disneyland and no where else. the roads will become less safe with a mindless car buzzing around. on the freeway?? no thanks. this is all bunch of hooey. get these stupid things off the road and leave the driving to us. are teen drivers dangerous? --yes. are teen drivers dangerous while texting?--yes. but, i would take teen drivers on the road way before a driverless car. let's see--there are manuevers, not even driverless cars can do safely. our road system is not set up to accommodate driverless cars--somehow cameras make decisions based on what it sees, not what is common sense. as "wonderful" as computers are---they will never replace the human brain and decision making. we keep hearing how many lives will be saved--where does that stat come from?--oh yeh, it comes from Google. get these stupid things off the road before someone gets killed.


2 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 15, 2017 at 2:31 am

Autonomous vehicles will require a lot of data. Is Palo Alto willing to invest in the technology infrastructure needed? Given the fiber debacle, I'm not so confident.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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