Sacramento’s Startup Agreement Green Light for Driverless

A partnership between Sacramento and a vehicle communications software provider is hoping to bring Level 5 autonomous vehicles to the streets of California’s capital city.

The city has entered into an agreement with Silicon Valley startup Phantom Auto. First reported in the Sacramento Bee, the partnership would see fully driverless cars, with no physical operator present in the vehicle, operate in a loop with pickup points at city hall and the Capitol building.

The newspaper uploaded a video driving the course of the loop, which features a mix of crossings, pedestrian and vehicular traffic. If those tests are successful, the partnership would evolve to cover more of the downtown area and, in theory, encourage more companies to test their AV components and vehicles in Sacramento.

“The technology is coming, it is happening. You are either at the front of the parade… or the back watching it pass you by,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinburg reportedly told local media. “We want Phantom Auto and others to know this is where we want you to launch your new product.”

Phantom Auto’s end-to-end platform claims to allow a remote human operator to control an AV when it encounters a scenario which it cannot handle on its own, allowing for safer testing and deployment of the vehicles. It is hoped the system will handle specific cases, such as high-risk construction areas with workers pointing to detours or shifting weather conditions that can impair an AV’s ability to safely navigate.

The move complements the city’s Autonomous Transportation Open Standards Lab (ATOS), a public-private partnership being developed to create a testbed for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). A number of politicians, including state Sen. Richard Pan, Mayor Steinberg and Sacramento Kings chairman Vivek Ranadivé, have come together to co-create ATOS.

The designated testing area envisioned comprises a zone containing more than 100 miles of roads for the testing, development and deployment of CAV technology. The area includes Midtown, Downtown and the Interstate 5 corridor from Sacramento International Airport to the urban core, and will be utilized as a testing area for up to Level 5 CAVs.

The newspaper also reported on some of the concerns local residents have about AV safety, with the head of the California Bicycling Coalition, Dave Snyder, worried about the readiness of the technology. “We’re concerned that the computer vision isn’t yet capable of operating safely on the streets,” Snyder told the paper. “We haven’t seen the definitive proof that they are.”

While Sacramento would be the first city in the state of California to test fully autonomous vehicles with no technician in the vehicle, other cities and other states are working overtime to lure AV companies to their territory. In May, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order allowing autonomous vehicle testing on all public roads in the Buckeye State.

Even America’s smallest state has big plans for a future with autonomous transit options, with Rhode Island ready to accept proposals from companies to test and deliver AV services to connect downtown Providence and the surrounding area.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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