The venture-capital guys who proposed limiting Interstate 5 between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., to just self-driving cars are back with an update, and a timeline for when they’d like to see human drivers booted from the freeway.
The report by the Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle-based firm and an early funder of Amazon, and Craig Mundie, a former Microsoft executive, proposes phased-in changes to the highway, ultimately leading to a ban on human drivers, during peak travel hours, in 2040.
The new report wants carpool lanes opened immediately to autonomous vehicles, two lanes (one north, one south) exclusively for autonomous vehicles by 2025, a majority of I-5’s lanes just for autonomous vehicles by 2030 and no more human drivers on I-5 during peak travel times by 2040.
Human drivers would still be allowed on nights and weekends.
In last year’s report and this year’s update, the authors write that Seattle and Vancouver can get ahead of the game by embracing and planning for what they say is the inevitable spread of self-driving cars. The pace of progress in the industry led the authors to update their proposal, they said.
Vancouver and Seattle, they write, can serve “as an example for how to proactively and responsibly incorporate this important cultural and technological change into their regional city and transportation planning.”
The proposal was first launched at a cross-border innovation conference in Vancouver last year, partly as a way to distinguish the region from cities hostile to autonomous vehicles, and is being updated for this year’s conference in Seattle.
The authors – along with Mundie, Madrone co-founder Tom Alberg and Madrona associate Daniel Li – predict fully autonomous vehicles, with no human input necessary, will be available in three years.
There’s still, to me, this huge equity issue where you’re shutting out travel on I-5 to lower-income people who have fewer alternatives.
Don MacKenzie, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington
But even if that’s right – and some experts are skeptical – it doesn’t mean autonomous vehicles are going to be ubiquitous, said Don Mac Kenzie, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington who studies electric and autonomous vehicles.
“There’s really no evidence to indicate that you would have all cars being capable of autonomous operation by 2040, or even the large majority,” MacKenzie said. “There’s still, to me, this huge equity issue where you’re shutting out travel on I-5 to lower-income people who have fewer alternatives.”
Madrona has a financial interest in promoting policy changes geared toward self-driving cars; the group is an investor in at least three local companies – Impinj, Mighty AI and Echodyne – that make components for potential use in autonomous vehicles.
Vehicles with different levels of autonomous control – automated braking or steering, for instance – are already on the road in cities and states across the country, albeit almost always with a driver behind the wheel.
Google began testing self-driving cars, in small numbers, in Kirkland last year.
We humans are really good at a lot of things. Driving cars isn’t necessarily one of them compared to the automated processes that are digital and foolproof.
Gov. Jay Inslee
In July, Gov. Jay Inslee, hoping to lure tech companies in a growing industry, signed an executive order opening Washington’s roads to testing of self-driving cars, with or without a person behind the wheel.
“We humans are really good at a lot of things,” Inslee said at the time. “Driving cars isn’t necessarily one of them compared to the automated processes that are digital and foolproof.”
Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles could, in theory, lead to fewer crashes and less traffic congestion – since fleets of self-driving cars could travel closer together and at more uniform speeds than human drivers can safely do.
But it also could lead to increased congestion if, for instance, your autonomous vehicle drives you to work and then drives itself home to avoid the hassle of finding parking. That turns one car trip into two.
Of course, cars last a long time. The average car on the road right now is 11 years old. And people aren’t going to be happy if their 2017 car is banned from parts of Washington’s most traveled highway just eight years from now, and banned entirely during peak driving hours in two decades.
“This final transition will require some tipping point in terms of vehicle availability and public interest,” the authors write, predicting that tipping point in 10 to 20 years.