How San José Launched its Autonomous Vehicle Vision

Feb 21, 2018

By: Nancy Torres
Data-Smart City Solutions

50 cities around the world are already testing autonomous vehicles (AVs) and several others are starting to plan for the influence autonomous vehicles will have on jobs, transportation, and more. Yet, according to the National League of Cities, only 6 percent of city transportation plans are actually taking into consideration how autonomous vehicles will transform urban mobility.

As technological advancement and product development for driverless cars continue, more private sector companies – from large-scale auto original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to startups – will want to scale autonomous vehicle user testing and bring concepts to the broader market. The question is, how might local governments effectively partner with the private sector to ensure that autonomous vehicles add value to a city’s infrastructure and align with the community’s core values?

The City of San José set out to answer this question in 2017 and is now on the brink of announcing a series of autonomous vehicle pilots that the city will launch this year.

As the 10th largest city in the United States and the “Capital of Silicon Valley,” it’s understandable why companies consider San José an ideal place for testing autonomous vehicles. Mayor Sam Liccardo announced a smart city vision for San José in 2016, through which autonomous vehicles would play a major role in helping local government make the city safer, more inclusive, more user-friendly, and more sustainable.

San José was approached by a diverse group of companies wanting to pilot autonomous vehicles in the city. While the private sector brought a host of ideas to the table, the city lacked a single place for information to be collected and a structured process for evaluating potential pilots, creating uncertainty as to the future of autonomous vehicles in the city.

It was at this point that Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham, working together with the city’s Department of Transportation, stepped in to bring cross-sector stakeholders together and put forth a plan for what autonomous vehicle pilots in San José would entail for local government, for private companies, and for residents.

During the first half of 2017, Santosham and her team at the Mayor’s Office organized two roundtables with several industry points of contact to discuss the idea of piloting autonomous vehicles in San José. The roundtables focused on outlining the resources the city had for pilots, discussing the core values of the city and how the use of autonomous vehicles would serve those values, and sharing community use cases for AV pilots. In this iterative process, San José shared its needs and received feedback from private sector parties on how autonomous vehicles could serve those needs.

Ultimately, the process led San José to release an Autonomous Vehicle Request for Information (RFI) that invited companies to submit ideas for autonomous vehicle pilots. During this process, the city also hired Jill North, a former Program Manager at Google, as Innovation Program Manager for the Department of Transportation. In this position, Jill was tasked to oversee the launch and implementation of autonomous vehicle pilots, among other innovative transportation initiatives.

In its RFI, San Jose outlined policy goals for autonomous vehicles, the infrastructure and ongoing support the city could offer for pilots, potential pilot locations and use cases, and a detailed list of information for interested private parties to provide. The RFI emphasized that the city hoped to use the pilots to help eliminate all traffic related fatalities and reduce severe injuries, reduce the environmental impact of vehicle miles traveled, build a balanced and equitable transportation system, and create a more livable and walkable city. The support the city offered included a central point of contact for implementation, access to databases, and support from the local transit agency.

The city also shared a range of specific pilot use cases which were developed throughout the roundtable process. Among the city’s desired use cases were transporting veterans, making the downtown area for accessible for nightlife and entertainment, and providing service from the city’s main transit center to the San Jose International Airport.

While the city only expected to receive around 10 submissions for pilots, the RFI process resulted in over 30 submissions that proposed ideas for directly deploying AVs on San Jose’s roadways or providing supplemental services to AVs operating in the city. From this pool of ideas, five were selected for in-person meetings with city staff to discuss the prospects of vehicle testing.

Now, the city is working towards establishing data-sharing agreements with two to three groups of partners in order to allow them to deploy their vehicles on San José’s streets. These agreements will allow government and private companies to share data with one another so that both parties are able to understand the full impact and performance of the pilot.  Aside from the agreements, the implementation process involves selecting target users for the pilots, vehicle stop locations, number of vehicles to be deployed, and specific hours of operation for vehicles.

Although some steps still need to be taken by both the private and public sector to ensure that these AV pilots are successful, San José is expected to announce and launch the final pilot programs this year. As cities start and continue to plan for an autonomous future, San José’s iterative RFI approach is a model for aligning public and private sector stakeholders to reach a shared smart city vision.