The Obama administration on Tuesday revealed a set of guidelines for automakers to ensure a safe, efficient rollout of self-driving vehicles in the United States.
The rapid development of autonomous vehicle tech, according to the administration, makes it clear that its emergence into American’s everyday life is no longer a question of if — but when.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, community members gathered Tuesday at Double Shift Brewing to discuss the future of driverless vehicles in the metro area. Kate Garman, KCMO innovation analyst, joined Jonathan Wagner, tech lead for the city’s Digital Town Square and Blake Miller of Think Big, in leading a conversation on the subject.
Garman said that Kansas City has a real opportunity to be a leader in self-driving car technology.
“The city doesn’t care about this just because it’s fancy,” Garman said. “Self-driving cars help to serve underserved communities the most. This could be a very cost advantageous way to get around town rather than waiting for the bus line.”
Miller said that self-driving cars are coming whether we like it or not. In addition to being a utility for the city, Miller added that automated vehicles are safer and would be an attraction for economic development.
As discussed by Uber VP Brian McClendon during Techweek, Kansas City has the most roads per capita in its urban core than any other city. Because of this, Uber drivers take longer to pick up passengers in Kansas City, on average, than other urban markets.
Kansas City’s road density offers the metro a unique opportunity and challenge: how can the city allow self-driving vehicles to thrive? How can we become a world leader in this technology?
Build the Infrastructure
For driverless cars to be supported by the city, Kansas City is going to need the right hardware to support it.
Not only is Kansas City currently home to the densest public WiFi infrastructure, but the city is currently building the world’s first gigabit testbed infrastructure: Digital Town Square. The hardware is expected to arrive this fall, and will give a huge advantage to Kansas City.
The undertaking is part of KC Digital Drive’s collaboration with US Ignite, which is a part of the White House’s Smart Cities initiative. The specialized hardware will eliminate delays — which for self-driving cars, can be a matter of life and death.
For the cars to drive themselves, the technology will need to “know the road.”
Centralized, open data will allow vehicles to have access to mapping and public transit data. Optimized self-driving cars will need to know where accidents are happening, what a typical commute looks like and real-time traffic conditions.
Bob Bennett, CIO of Kansas City, Mo., and Alan Howze, CKO for Kansas City Kan., have been working closely on several open data projects. As part of MetroLab Network, both cities have partnered with UMKC in efforts to become a leader in centralized data. In addition, Kansas City already has weather sensors along the streetcar corridor, which is critical information for self-driving cars.
This accumulation of open data will create a centralized platform that anyone can tap, which could attract developers to Kansas City.
Kansas City tech leaders agree that self-driving cars are “inevitable” and “the future” but for the technology to fully integrate into everyday life, it’ll need public approval.
Corey Hamilton is a local cyber security developer who participated in the discussion. While excited about the prospect of autonomous vehicles, he notes safety and privacy concerns.
“I am very much a user of Uber,” Hamilton said “But, I don’t want the city to know how often I frequent a car or go to a person’s house. I don’t want that information getting out there.”
Hamilton added that he is unsure how long it will take to implement the technology, despite the city’s optimism.
Community member Hunter Johnston has experience riding in driverless vehicles and believes that this is an inevitable paradigm shift, much like going from a Motorola flip phone to an iPhone.
“As far as being comfortable, I think it’s less about understanding the technology and more about experiencing the technology,” Johnston said. “The first minute is very nerve wracking, and then you realize what the technology is capable of and (the nerves) all kind of fade away. (Driverless vehicles) become cool and fun.Then you live with it every day and it just becomes kind of this expected part of life, you get in every other car and it just feels lame.”
In addition to the “cool” component, community members agreed on the importance of facilitating transportation in Kansas City. The reality of autonomous vehicles is driving closer — and it might as well park here.