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Mayor Wheeler on autonomous vehicles: Portland is “open for business”

Bike traffic on NW Broadway-20
Don’t worry! Those cars are driving themselves.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Hoping to get out in front of what many see as an inevitable tidal wave in vehicle technology that will transform our streets, the City of Portland has announced the Smart Autonomous Vehicles Initiative (SAVI).

The announcement was made this morning at the Portland Business Alliance’s April Forum Breakfast event. Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Commissioner Dan Saltzman spoke at the event and formally launched the initiative via the Portland Bureau of Transportation (which Saltzman oversees). By the end of this year the city will develop a suite of policies and review proposals from private companies that want to test AVs on Portland streets.

“My goal is to have an autonomous vehicle pilot program in Portland, working for Portlanders, by the end of the year,” Wheeler said in a statement. “To the inventors, investors and innovators, I’m here to say that Portland is open for business. By working with private industry, we can make sure that cutting edge technology expands access to public transit and reduces pollution and congestion.”

Commissioner Saltzman, who has made it clear that Vision Zero is his top transportation priority, said he think AVs can make streets safer, “By taking human error out of the equation.” As we reported yesterday, a new study found alarming rates of phone use and distraction among drivers. And that doesn’t even take into account other — and often purposeful — dangerous driving behaviors that are common on our streets every single day.

“As we work towards our Vision Zero goal of ending traffic fatalities and serious injuries,” Saltzman added. “The public has a right to expect that the city will help make sure that safety standards are met.”

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“As we work towards our Vision Zero goal of ending traffic fatalities and serious injuries, the public has a right to expect that the city will help make sure that safety standards are met.”
— Dan Saltzman, Portland City Commissioner

PBOT hit the ground running on some of their AV policies due to their work on the US Department of Transportation’s “Smart Cities Challenge” grant they applied for last year.

PBOT Director Leah Treat said this new initiative is about, “Realizing the potential of autonomous vehicles,” which starts with, “making smart choices and setting clear standards that support the interests of the autonomous vehicle industry and our community.” If done right, Treat says, AVs will, “increase affordable transportation, reduce congestion and fight pollution.”

Here’s more about SAVI from a statement released by PBOT this morning:

The directive tells PBOT to take four actions to advance SAVI within the next 60 days:
1. Propose for City Council and public consideration Interim Transportation System Plan (TSP) policies that ensure connected and autonomous vehicles will serve Portland’s safety, equity, climate change, and economic goals;
2. Publish a Request for Information (RFI) that invites AV testing specific to advancing safety, equity, climate, and economic goals;
3. Adopt an Interim Administrative Rule that provides a clear path to permit innovators to apply to test, pilot or deploy AVs in Portland; and
4. Develop public engagement, reporting, and evaluation plans that ensure Portland residents, workers, and businesses have opportunities to shape the “rules of the road” for AVs in Portland.

While city leaders are making rosy statements about an AV future, they are smart to take a cautious approach that keeps our community values at the forefront of the conversation. There remains vast uncertainty about the impacts AVs will have on our transportation system. Many researchers — including Fehr & Peers, who had advised the City of Portland on the top of AVs — have found that widespread adoption of AVs could lead to significant increases in average vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and a corresponding decrease in bus ridership.

Those issues and many others are likely to spur a robust debate in Portland as this issue moves forward.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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