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Seattle launches permit system for companies testing self-driving vehicles on city streets

A Zoox vehicle makes its way around Amazon’s campus in Seattle. (GeekWIre Photo / Taylor Soper)

Tech companies and automakers that want to test self-driving cars on Seattle streets now have to obtain a permit showing they comply with safety and liability regulations.

The Seattle City Council and Department of Transportation launched the permitting program Nov. 14 in response to safety concerns citizens raised after companies such as Amazon announced plans to test self-driving cars in the city, Council Transportation Committee Chair Alex Pedersen told GeekWire. 

“I believe this is a sensible step for basic safety, transparency, and accountability for companies wanting to test emerging technologies on our public streets,” Pedersen said in an email.

Companies seeking a permit will have to notify the city before beginning testing and display company logos prominently on their self-driving cars. The permit also requires companies to share information with the city on their test driver training programs, any collisions or other incidents involving their vehicles, and proof of insurance. The public must be notified of intentions to launch a self-driving car pilot through at least two community outreach events to obtain a permit.

Prior to Seattle’s permit program, companies seeking to test autonomous vehicles (AVs) in Washington state faced few barriers. The Washington Department of Licensing simply asks companies to self-certify if they are testing AVs in the state, provide proof of insurance, and confirm that a human operator will be present during test drives. The City Council says its new rules build on the state self-certification process.

The state of AVs in Seattle

In the Seattle area, Waymo last month started testing the fifth generation of its Waymo Driver technology in its distinctive, all-electric Jaguar I-PACE vehicles. (Waymo Photo)

Autonomous vehicle companies often choose cities to test in based on the distinctive characteristics of their geographies. By that metric, Seattle has a lot to offer. The weather is unpredictable, there are plenty of hills and bodies of water, and — as anyone who has driven in the city will tell you — there are some wonky roads.

Those conditions led Zoox, Waymo, and GM’s Cruise to launch testing programs in the Seattle region. Amazon acquired the robotaxi startup Zoox in 2020 and announced the testing program in its hometown last year. NVIDIA Corporation also self-certified its intention to test AVs with the Washington Department of Licensing.

“Testing in a new city gives our vehicle and AI the chance to experience fresh challenges, including different weather and infrastructure, different by-laws, and a different driving culture,” Amazon said in the announcement. “These challenges will help us iterate our hardware and software, ultimately broadening the capabilities of Zoox.”

Amazon’s plans raised red flags for street safety groups in Seattle. Mayor Mike McGinn, former Seattle mayor and current director of America Walks, told The Seattle Times last year that “safety requires moving slowly and stopping at signs of danger.” He said historically that has “been a challenge for self-driving vehicles to do in urban setting with pedestrians and bikes.”

Pedersen said the permit is designed to “balance those concerns with our enthusiasm for emerging technologies.”

But not everyone is bullish about the technology’s future. Safety concerns and slow progress have some experts sounding alarm bells about the autonomous vehicle industry.

Not quite there yet

Chris Urmson, CEO at Aurora, speaks at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle in October. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

At the 2015 GeekWire Summit, Nick Hanauer — the outspoken early Amazon investor with a reputation for anticipating tech trends — made a bold prediction. He said his teenage son could be “the last generation of kids who learns to drive.” 

By 2018, he said, “we’ll have self-driving cars and it will be so much better.” 

It wasn’t an outrageous claim at the time, but nearly two decades and some $206 billion have come and gone since automakers began demoing self-driving technology, and there are still no entirely autonomous vehicles for sale to the public. As Bloomberg reports, the valuations of AV companies are dropping rapidly as some experts warn “it’s a scam.” Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft have abandoned plans to build their own self-driving cars.

The industry still has its believers though. Speaking at the 2022 GeekWire Summit, Chris Urmson, CEO of autonomous driving technology company Aurora, said fully autonomous cars are closer than we might expect.

Urmson said Aurora has freight trucks on the road in Texas “pulling loads for customers every day” and even though a human operator is always present, “the vast majority of the time, it’s driving itself.”

Still, when asked about letting software take the wheel entirely, Urmson acknowledged it’s “not quite there yet.”

The regulation landscape

Regulators want to be ready if and when autonomous vehicles do get there. Lawmakers have passed 129 bills related to autonomous vehicles across 42 states, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures

Cities like Seattle are also taking a leading role in regulating AVs, as Citylab reports. Municipal governments were caught playing catch-up when ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft suddenly began reshaping the urban transportation landscape and they want to get ahead of the curve with self-driving cars. 

The Urban Institute released a report in September with recommended regulations for autonomous vehicles. The researchers suggest local governments require car makers to expand testing, adhere to safety-focused design standards, move toward zero-emissions vehicles, and deploy self-driving services equitably. Those recommendations are in line with Seattle’s new permit program.

Read More: Seattle launches permit system for companies testing self-driving vehicles on city streets

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