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How these Bay Area cities are paving the way for our autonomous car future

Erin Baldassari, The Mercury News on

Published in Automotive News

SAN FRANCISCO -- Within two to three years, bicyclists in Emeryville and Los Gatos will be able to download an app to get more green lights at intersections. Patients at the Veterans Administration Palo Alto Medical Center will be hopping on an autonomous shuttle for appointments. And, within a few more years, BART riders in Dublin will have a driverless vehicle picking them up and dropping them off at the station.

It's all part of an effort to prepare the Bay Area for a future with self-driving cars, said Robert Rich, a planner at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the region's transportation planning agency. When that future comes, cars will be expected to communicate not just with each other, but also with traffic signals and other infrastructure, he said.

And that's where the MTC comes in. On Wednesday, an MTC committee approved $5 million in grants for six cities to embark on pilot programs aimed at not only the driverless future, but also at solving real-world traffic problems now. The full commission is expected to formally award the grants on Feb. 28.

"We were looking for more hands-on knowledge of both how connected and autonomous technology would work together," Rich said. "We wanted to see how ready this technology was, how it could work and how much it costs, and see if it could tackle some short-term challenges, as well."

In Emeryville, traffic engineer Ryan O'Connell expects a three-phase approach. The city will first install upgraded traffic signals to collect large amounts of data to help the flow of traffic at 15 intersections on 40th, Shellmound and Powell streets. Then, the city will work with transit agencies to install GPS technology at the signals for public transit, which now rely on infrared.

Finally, using the same GPS technology, O'Connell said the city will deploy an app for cyclists that tells the signals to stay green longer when they approach an intersection. The apps will be able to differentiate between a bicycle and car based on speed.

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The idea, O'Connell said, is to encourage modes of transportation other than cars. And, since Emeryville sits on the Bay Trail, it willl help the flow of cyclists on weekends, when they traverse the corridor in large numbers.

"That would really help the weekend riders coming through here to get more green time and fewer delays," he said, adding that he also expects it will help during the weekday commute. "Whenever we're promoting health benefits, we're also promoting (reduced) emissions benefits and helping get people out of their cars."

In Palo Alto, a team comprised of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the Mineta Transportation Institute and the VA hospital are working to develop the world's first autonomous vehicle that is also accessible to passengers who are blind, use wheelchairs or otherwise need assistance getting around.

The VTA has been watching the advent of autonomous vehicles with great interest, said Gary Miskell, the agency's chief information and technology officer. But there was one problem, he said. The autonomous vehicles being developed weren't accessible to everyone.


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