Daimler Trucks North America spokesman allowed a robotic truck to drive him nearly 25 miles. He never touched the steering wheel or brakes. His digital pilot used a combination of GPS, map data and sensors to drive the autonomous truck across highways and two-way streets.
He sat in the driver’s seat — just in case he had to take control. “It’s really a question of ‘do you trust the engineers?’” he said at a recent Business Journal event. “I’m from the financing side, so the answer is ‘not really.’”That trust may come along slower than the technology to make driverless vehicles possible.
Silicon Valley might be home base for Google, Apple, Tesla and many of the biggest headline grabbers when it comes to self-driving vehicles, but the first time you get into a commercially available autonomous vehicle — a car that doesn’t require a human driver — you’ll likely be riding along Seattle’s roads. Car-sharing services including Car2Go — a subsidiary of parent company, Daimler — and BMW’s ReachNow will likely be the companies to summon your driverless car.
The Puget Sound-area’s century-long dominance in transportation technology and decades of wireless communication expertise means the right people are already here working on the future of transportation. Connected car and car-sharing companies combined with relatively progressive regulators and early adopters make the region uniquely qualified to roll out the first fleets of driverless cars.
If Seattle can harness the city’s advantages and become the first to unveil self-driving cars, it could put the region on the map when it comes to international investments, recruitment of top talent and technology dominance. The city where the self-driving car is launched for the masses will have a marketing story for the ages.
Car-sharing and self-driving vehicle technology could also help alleviate the Puget Sound region’s traffic woes — which have become a recruiting issue for local companies — by reducing the number of cars on roads and in parking garages. Ultimately, Seattle-area entrepreneurs have the power to help shape the future of mobility.
That’s already happening. Some of ReachNow’s fleet is made up of electric BMW i3 cars. Through the service, many people in Seattle are experiencing electric cars for the first time. ReachNow plans to do the same thing with autonomous cars.
“As self-driving capabilities become available,” a spokesman said, “ReachNow will be the first experience many people have with self-driving cars.”
Seattle has embraced car-sharing arguably more than any other U.S. city. ReachNow decided in April to make Seattle its North American headquarters. The city is the largest U.S. market for competing free-floating car service Car2Go. Both companies — owned by large auto manufacturers BMW and Daimler, respectively — are planning for a future where driverless cars shepherd customers around.
It’s not just the car-sharing services that see Seattle as a good place to try out new technology.
Google recently began testing autonomous cars in Kirkland and is working locally on Google Maps, which will help guide its driverless vehicles. Kirkland-based connected car data company Inrix and Puget Sound-area startups Airbiquity and UIEvolution are working on cutting edge technology that can help the industry push ahead.
Despite a recent disagreement about whether to allow Uber drivers to unionize, local regulators have shown a willingness work with transportation technology companies. Seattle worked with Uber to find a regulatory compromise for traditional taxi companies and ride-sharing services. The city also worked closely with Car2Go and ReachNow to make city parking spaces available for their customers.
This already helping the region claim a chunk of the connected car industry’s more than $40 billion projected value by 2020.
The fight for dominance in car-sharing is playing out in Seattle.
“We could not be in a better position at Car2Go when it comes to the future of autonomous driving,”.
The company was the first car-sharing service to manufacture its own vehicles, he said, and will be the first to introduce autonomous car-sharing.
Daimler-owned Car2Go launched in Seattle in 2012 and, with a fleet of more than 750 cars, the city is already the company’s largest U.S. market
Earlier this year, the BMW-owned Car2Go challenger, ReachNow, emerged and the German company chose Seattle as the new service’s North American headquarters. The ReachNow service launched in April has already grown from around 350 to more than 500 cars. ReachNow plans to be in four North American cities this year and recently announced plans to launch in Portland.
The competition has already been a benefit for the Seattle area. Car-sharing services allow multiple people to use the same vehicle in the course of a day. Drivers can rent cars through ReachNow, Car2Go and ZipCar for shorter amounts of time than traditional car-rental services.