City wants driverless attention

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A popular idea among science fiction buffs may soon become a reality on Chula Vista city streets.

Driverless cars are coming or, at least, the city would like them to – according to a Feb. 25 news release calling for automated vehicle innovators to test out their products in the South Bay.

The idea is nothing new in Chula Vista, which partnered with SANDAG and CalTrans in 2017 to offer up city streets and highways in an effort to become a proving ground for automated vehicles.

Along with Chula Vista city streets, Interstate 15 express lanes in North County and the 125 Freeway along the South Bay Expressway were part of a proposal made to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The USDOT accepted the proposal and the area became known as the San Diego Regional Proving Ground, one of 10 regional proving grounds around the country.

Chula Vista Director of Engineering & Capital Projects/City Engineer Bill Valle said the city had innovation and progressiveness on its mind when applying.

“We’re not just this sleepy old suburb of San Diego, we’re our own shining star and we’ve got to do things like this,” he said. “We need to at least attract attention and gain interest, and if we can accomplish that then the economic benefits will come.”

The city solicited for driverless vehicle innovators at the time, and while some have reached out over the years, there hasn’t been much testing done on city streets, according to Valle.

Automated vehicle innovators must only have a California permit to operate on the San Diego Proving Grounds so, in reality, the city of Chula Vista could be kept in the dark as to vehicles testing in the city.

What Valle said what the city is offering, however, is help making the process go as smoothly as possible.

“What the proving ground designation has done for us is really let industry know, ‘Hey, if you’re interested in testing, come and talk to us and we’ll find ways to,’” he said. “We aren’t going to be the typical bureaucracy that cities typically are, we work collaboratively with the government with them.”

There are potential concerns among the public, with the majority of Americans not feeling all that safe about driverless vehicles, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center in May of 2017.

In the poll, 54 percent of U.S. adults responded that “they were somewhat or very worried about the development of driverless vehicles.”

Valle said the city looks at safety as “number one,” but added the streets will never be entirely safe, ironically, until all vehicles are automated.

“There will never be zero accidents in my opinion until every vehicle is autonomous,” he said. “Autonomous vehicles, they follow the rules of the road.”

What might ease the minds of concerned citizens is that getting a permit to test autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel is not easy, and the locations where they can test are closely monitored and – at least in Chula Vista – would have to be in a closed off location.

“The state department of vehicle regulations and the state highway code doesn’t allow them just to willy-nilly test with nobody in the car,” Valle said.

California passed regulations in February of 2018 to allow companies to test out driverless vehicles without a driver in the car, although a remote operator is required.
Another positive to automated vehicles, according to Valle, is that cars themselves are becoming smarter.

Automated vehicles can have the ability to communicate with one another, send out data and take images of streets – finding and fixing problems in a timelier manner.

Kevin Pointer, Chula Vista’s senior economic development specialist, said the South Bay would benefit from having smart cars roam city streets.

“The more that we can participate with the individual businesses at the cutting edge and the leading edge, the more that our end users will benefit and see all the benefits of living in a smart city,” he said.

The call for automated vehicles does appear to be in line with Chula Vista’s Smart City initiative – which, according to its website, seeks to improve the quality of life for residents through the use of advanced technology to spur economic growth.

Along with automated vehicles, the city also put out a request for proposal for companies to test out their drone devices, something which has already been going on at the cities 375-acre undeveloped future-university site.

The city also suggested that development sites at both the Bayfront and Millenia campus could be good places for testing, according to the news release.

“Because the infrastructure isn’t necessarily there already, we can integrate any type of technological infrastructure into those projects,” Pointer said.

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