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December 26th, 2017

At a news conference in the spring, Austin Mayor Steve Adler made a bold statement about the city’s future in innovative technology -- specifically, its future in the automotive industry. 

 “Austin,” Adler said, “should be to automated vehicles what Detroit was to the last century of automakers.” 

For years, high-tech and automotive companies have sped toward a future where autonomous vehicles dominate the market, promising market-ready vehicles within the next decade. 

In the same time, the city of Austin has been working toward becoming a key player in this technology sector. The city has made headway with the aid of local research institutions, private sector interest, partnerships, and now, a recently published mobility report. 

City leaders in October released the 141-page report, titled the “Smart Mobility Roadmap,” to discusses the vision for Austin’s transportation future and the role self-driving vehicle tech will have in it. 

“Many are wondering how and when autonomous vehicles and services will make an impact for the Austin community and how to hasten the benefits to the people,” the report says, while also highlighting the progress of shared and electric vehicle mobility projects in the city. 

The Austin Transportation Department’s first goal is to coordinate outreach programs with other public and private organizations within the city, according to the report. 

In roughly two years, the city aims to hire an officer to oversee autonomous vehicle initiatives and develop a master plan for the use of autonomous and electric vehicles in Austin. In two to four years, the city envisions creating programs to help train people for new jobs that will emerge with the evolution of driverless vehicles. 

The roadmap, in many ways, is “a call to action, if you will, for local transportation entities,” city of Austin transportation director Robert Spillar said. “These things are on our doorstep, and we need to get in and get ahead of it.” 

 

‘A historic role’ 

 

Austin’s role in the industry took a significant step forward in 2015, when Google chose the city to complete what the company says was the world’s first-ever fully self-driving trip without a driver presence. 

Alphabet, the parent company of Google and one of the front-runners of this innovation, recently saw its autonomous vehicle project, now named Waymo, surpass 4 million self-driving miles on public roads in 23 U.S. cities. In the next several months, the company said, it plans to launch a public driverless service in Phoenix. 

“Austin continues to play a historic role in advancing self-driving technology and in the progress we’re making at Waymo,” Waymo spokeswoman Haley Morris said. “Austin helped us teach our cars new skills like how to navigate horizontal traffic lights and two lane traffic circles -- both of which are common in Austin. We were so inspired by Austin traffic that we even built a mock-up of one of the traffic circles at our test facility to make sure our cars could navigate them safely under all kinds of scenarios.” 

Courtesy of Alphabet-WaymoGoogle tests its self-driving car in Austin in 2015.

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation chose Texas as one of 10 designated regions across the country to test connected and automated vehicle technology. 

As part of that initiative, the University of Texas’ Center for Transportation Research has been using sensor and connectivity technology provided by Austin-based National Instruments to test automated vehicle tech in Austin. 

Using three vehicles, the center has focused on how autonomous vehicles could communicate with each other, as well as traffic structures, in order to provide a more seamless traffic system, according to Chandra Bhat, the center’s director. Bhat said the center is sharing its findings with the Texas Department of Transportation. 

Additionally, chip-making companies that have a large presence in Austin, such as Intel, have also been researching and developing communication tech for autonomous cars. Intel, which says it employs more than 2,300 people in Austin and Plano, as well as roughly 100 interns from UT, has worked with Waymo to develop autonomous vehicles. It’s unclear if any of Intel’s research or development of autonomous vehicle tech took place in Austin. The company did not respond to requests for comment. 

NXP Semiconductors, another tech company with a significant Austin presence, also recently announced that it would partner with Baidu Inc. to provide semiconductor products for the self-driving auto industry. NXP Semiconductors has about 5,000 workers in Central Texas, mainly from its 2015 purchase of Austin-based Freescale Semiconductor. (In October 2016, San Diego-based chipmaker Qualcomm announced it planned to purchase NXP, but that deal still has not been completed.)

At the South By Southwest conference this past March, Capital Metro tested an autonomous shuttle at UT with international transportation company RATP Dev. About the same time, Audi representatives also test-drove a vehicle with autonomous capabilities in Austin. 

Three months later, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law allowing autonomous vehicle testing throughout the state, a statute that didn’t technically need to exist since there was no law forbidding the testing but that represented to industry stakeholders that Texas is open to the technology. Under the law, the state defines self-driving vehicles as those that can perform the duties of a car without any human intervention or supervision. Self-driving vehicles must comply with traffic rules, have recording devices installed and be registered and insured just like any other car, with companies being liable for any traffic violations or vehicle crashes. 

In August, the city of Austin approved a two-year pilot program to test autonomous delivery robots, and the city is also piloting a system that allows vehicles and traffic structures to communicate with each other. 

“We have all of the right ingredients here in terms of research, manufacturers and the city of Austin itself that are all looking forward to how these things can work,” Bhat said. “There are many players like National Instruments doing a lot of work in this area.” 

 

'A disruptive technology' 

 

As legacy automakers such as General Motors and high-tech companies such as Alphabet, Tesla, Uber and Lyft progress toward bringing autonomous vehicles to the market, Austin transportation officials are also exploring possible partnerships, Spillar said. 

Officials say autonomous vehicles could provide solutions to greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and traffic-related deaths while providing accessibility to disabled and other underserved groups. But Austin also has its reputation to think about. 

“Austin touts itself as the Silicon Valley of Texas, and an important part of that environment is showing (companies) that they are on the leading edge of thinking about this,” said Nathan Shipley, an automotive industry analyst with New York-based research firm The NPD Group. “We are going to see a complete change of the mobility model, and cities will have to own those things, so adapting projects to this model is important for cities to think about. Dense, urban tech cities like Austin are where these technologies are going to be adopted the quickest.” 

Courtesy of the Austin Transportation Department

Through Bloomberg L.P.’s philanthropic branch, Austin has partnered with 10 cities -- Los Angeles, Paris and London among them -- to figure out how autonomous vehicle tech could help major metropolitan areas, and Austin plans to continue autonomous shuttle testing with the aid of research organization Rocky Mountain Institute. 

At the same time, the city’s report acknowledges the challenges that come with this innovation. Automation usually brings concerns of job losses, and there is also worry about the tech advancing problems like affordability and congestion. Some industry experts say full automation of vehicles will only truly be beneficial if it is paired with ride-sharing. 

“A disruptive technology by its nature is disruptive,” Spillar said. “But I don’t know that it’s a one-for-one job loss. Think about an automated bus may not need a driver, but you may need a conductor to help passengers, etc. If we don’t plan for that, it will be super disruptive.” 

As part of its roadmap, the city of Austin is considering possible incentives to encourage the acceptance of autonomous vehicles. Incentives could include free parking for autonomous or electric vehicles, or increased integration of electric vehicle charging stations, Spillar said. 

There is much left to figure out, including how Austin can fund some of its goals. The city lost out on a $50 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant that was awarded in 2016 to Columbus, Ohio, for the funding of futuristic city projects. Officials said they will explore funding options as the roadmap moves forward. 

Autonomous vehicle stakeholders are also still measuring how the evolving tech can impact everyday commuters and services such as ride-hailing, Shipley said. 

Even with the progress in recent years, some experts say widespread use is still a generation away. 

Business consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, for example, used historical data of earlier tech like cruise control to predict in a 2015 report that it will take 15 to 20 years for fully-autonomous vehicles to reach a global market penetration-rate of 25 percent. 

“This tech has changed the landscape for the entire industry,” Shipley said. “Car companies are turning themselves into tech companies. It’s exciting to think about, but … we don’t see overall consumer willingness to adopt this technology. That’s the biggest challenge for (stakeholders), is getting consumers on board. There’s fear of the unknown and trust issues of autonomous cars.” 

Still, the technology is already disrupting the market, Spillar said. And not much will stop that. 

“This technology is coming. These things are going to happen regardless,” he said. “So, it’s not just about ‘should we be involved in it?’ But ‘can we help shape it?’ That way, we end up with a better condition than we have today.”

Top photo: Capital Metro test and operation engineer Vasilis Karavidas performs a demonstration of an autonomous shuttle at the University of Texas during the South By Southwest conference in 2017. (James Gregg/American-Statesman)

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