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.