Technology companies and automakers wanting to test self-driving cars on the streets of Seattle must now obtain approval showing they comply with safety and liability codes.
The Seattle City Council and Department of Transportation launched the permitting program Nov. 14 in response to safety concerns raised by citizens after companies like Amazon announced plans to test self-driving cars in the city, said Alex Pedersen, chair of the council’s transportation committee , opposite GeekWire.
“I believe this is a sensible move for basic safety, transparency and accountability for companies looking to test new technologies on our public roads,” Pedersen said in an email.
Companies applying for a permit must notify the city before beginning testing and prominently display company logos on their self-driving cars. The permit also requires companies to provide the city with information about their test driver training programs, collisions or other incidents involving their vehicles, and proof of insurance. The public must be informed of the intention to commercialize a self-driving autopilot through at least two public relations events in order to receive approval.
Before Seattle’s permitting program, companies looking to test autonomous vehicles (AVs) in Washington state faced few obstacles. The Washington Department of Licensing simply requires companies to self-certify when testing AVs in the state, provide proof of insurance, and confirm that a human operator will be present during test drives. The city council says its new rules build on the state’s self-certification process.
The AV’s booth in Seattle
Autonomous vehicle companies often select cities for testing based on the specifics of their regions. Based on that metric, Seattle has a lot going for it. The weather is unpredictable, there are lots of hills and bodies of water, and – as anyone who has driven in the city will tell you – there are some crooked roads.
These conditions prompted Zoox, Waymo and GM Cruise to start testing programs in the Seattle area. Amazon acquired robotaxi startup Zoox in 2020 and announced the testing program in its hometown last year. NVIDIA Corporation has also self-certified its intention to test AVs with the Washington Department of Licensing.
“Testing in a new city gives our vehicle and AI the opportunity to experience new challenges, including different weather and infrastructure, different statutes and driving culture,” Amazon said in the announcement. “These challenges will help us iterate on our hardware and software and ultimately expand Zoox’s capabilities.”
Amazon’s plans raised red flags for Seattle street safety groups. Mayor Mike McGinn, a former Seattle mayor and current director of America Walks, told the Seattle Times last year that “safety requires moving slowly and stopping at signs of danger.” He said that in the past “this has been a challenge for self-driving vehicles in urban settings with pedestrians and bicycles.”
Pedersen said the approval is intended to “balance these concerns with our enthusiasm for new technologies.”
But not everyone is optimistic about the future of technology. Safety concerns and slow progress are ringing alarm bells for some experts regarding the autonomous vehicle industry.
Not quite there yet
At the 2015 GeekWire Summit, Nick Hanauer — the outspoken early Amazon investor with a reputation for anticipating technology trends — made a bold prediction. He said his teenage son could be “the last generation of kids to learn to drive”.
By 2018, he said, “we’re going to have self-driving cars and it’s going to be so much better.”
It wasn’t an outrageous claim at the time, but nearly two decades and roughly $206 billion have come and gone since automakers began showing off self-driving technology, and there are still no fully autonomous vehicles being sold to the public. As Bloomberg reports, AV company valuations are falling rapidly as some experts warn it is a scam. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft have abandoned plans to build their own self-driving cars.
However, the industry still has its believers. Chris Urmson, CEO of autonomous driving technology company Aurora, told the GeekWire Summit 2022 that fully autonomous cars are closer than we might expect.
Urmson said Aurora has boxcars on the Texas roads “pulling loads for customers every day,” and while there’s always a human operator present, “he drives himself the vast majority of the time.”
However, when asked whether software should take full control, Urmson conceded that “it’s not quite there yet.”
The regulatory landscape
Regulators want to be ready when autonomous vehicles get there. Legislatures have passed 129 autonomous vehicle-related bills in 42 states, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Cities like Seattle are also taking the lead in regulating AVs, Citylab reports. Local governments were caught catching up when ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft suddenly began reshaping the urban transportation landscape and they wanted to stay ahead of the curve with self-driving cars.
The Urban Institute released a report with recommended regulations for autonomous vehicles in September. The researchers suggest that local governments require automakers to expand testing, adhere to safety-centric design standards, move to zero-emission vehicles, and deploy self-driving services fairly. These recommendations are consistent with Seattle’s new permitting program.