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Council looks forward to robot car future

Friday, March 3, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council has kicked its embrace of self-driving cars into maximum overdrive.

On Thursday morning, Council approved a resolution directing the city manager to develop a plan to prepare the city for a future of shared vehicles piloted by software and powered by electricity.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, the chair of the Mobility Committee and lead sponsor of the resolution, said at a press conference that the action addresses several “of history’s biggest what-ifs: What if our transportation didn’t depend on a depreciating asset that sat parked most of the time? What if we looked at mobility as a service? And what if that service unclogged our roads, didn’t pollute our air and didn’t make us depend on fossil fuels?”

The resolution gives the city manager until June 15 to return to Council with the so-called New Mobility Electric/Autonomous Vehicle Plan. The plan should include “measurable interim greenhouse gas reduction targets” and focus on a wide-ranging number of transportation concerns including on-demand technology, costs, reduced congestion and mobility for seniors, disabled residents and anyone without a driver’s license.

The resolution also left open the possibility of creating an executive staff position to oversee EV/AV transportation services.

Hopes for a future of self-driving cars have inflated in recent years, especially here in Austin, a city notable for both its strong tech sector and its woeful transportation problems. However, countless details of how that future could take shape remain unclear, including the effects of public transit, whether the model of individual ownership will be overtaken by shared use, how cities will change to accommodate AVs and when to expect the new age’s event horizon.

On Thursday, Kitchen said that the city will continue to work collaboratively with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and noted joint efforts to electrify the transit agency’s bus fleet. She also emphasized that the plan envisioned by the resolution is aimed at reducing single-occupant vehicles.

“Please hear us: We’re talking about the importance of shared use,” she said.

Meanwhile, Austin Transportation Director Rob Spillar said that he expects automated vehicles to be commonplace 40 years from now, though he suggested it could be as soon as 10 years. He also suggested shared-use AVs could help with affordability concerns by reducing the need to build costly parking structures.

Kathleen Baireuther of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which helped craft the resolution, echoed Spillar’s comments. She explained, “This also touches land use, and it touches how we interact with the built environment, and that’s integral to what the city of the future will look like.”

Photo by smoothgoover22 made available through a Creative Commons license.

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