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WEpod shuttle bus
Self-driving electric buses known as “WEpods” ride the roads in the Netherlands. (Credit: WEpods)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Self-driving cars are all well and good for cross-country trips, but what Madrona Venture Group’s Tom Alberg really wants to see is a self-driving bus that can take him on a winery tour.

“I’m very keen on the idea of navigating a wine van pool, going around between the different wineries,” the influential investment group’s managing director joked.

And there’s a chance Alberg may get his wish, or something close to it, sooner rather than later.

He and other stakeholders in the region’s transportation future gathered at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Conference Center on Friday for the 2016 Advanced Transportation Technologies Conference, organized by the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions.

Just after his talk, two Bellevue city council members and Bellevue Mayor John Stokes bent Alberg’s ear about their plans to make the Seattle region an incubator for autonomous transit. The council is on track to get a full-time staff member working on ways to ease Bellevue’s traffic mess with “smart city” strategies.

Alberg and Marshall
Tom Alberg (left), managing director and a co-founder of Madrona Venture Group, discusses transit policy with Steve Marshall, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

City Councilmember Kevin Wallace sees the challenge as an opportunity “to make Bellevue the cutting edge of transportation technology.”

“How can we use this one square mile that’s downtown Bellevue, surrounded by neighborhoods full of wealthy early-adopters, to be the testing ground?” he said.

Autonomous buses and vans are by no means a total solution to the congestion and costs associated with the region’s transit woes. But they could fill a niche between the mass transit extensions that will be funded by the recently approved $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package, and the fleets of autonomous cars that are expected to proliferate in the years to come.

Alberg said autonomous vehicles could affect the grand plan for Sound Transit 3.

“I just hope Sound Transit and others are really maintaining flexibility,” he said. “I know it was a plan approved by the voters. It’s a good plan, but I also think 10 years from now, they’ll need to take a new look at some of the aspects of this. When the lawyers are drafting bond resolutions, I hope they’re providing flexibility so they’re not locked into systems that can’t be changed.”

In September, Alberg and his colleagues at Madrona proposed creating exclusive self-driving lanes on Interstate 5 between Seattle and Vancouver – an idea that he now acknowledges was put forward partly for its “shock effect.” That’s a long-term vision, but Alberg said some changes that could be made sooner rather than later to get ready for a driverless future.

“Whoever controls it, whether it’s federal or state, immediately saying that autonomous vehicles can use the HOV lanes … there’s one thing that can be done right away,” he told GeekWire.

Transit policy analysts say autonomous vehicles would change the equation in several ways – by dramatically reducing accident rates, by “platooning” a string of connected cars or trucks to make highway travel more efficient, and by reducing the cost of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

It’s no secret that taking the driver out of the car makes a big difference for the economics of ride-sharing. The same goes for transit. Shuttle services are particularly well-suited for autonomous vehicles because they tend to involve well-established, predictable routes.

That’s the reason why Local Motors’ Olli driverless shuttles are making inroads in urban settings such as Miami, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. In the Netherlands, a program called WEpods is taking a similar route.

The changing economics could cause cities like Bellevue to revisit concepts that were previously discarded – for example, creating shuttles to connect an expanded network of park-and-ride lots with downtown stops.

“We actually looked about 10 years ago at doing a circulator in downtown Bellevue. The cost was, like, $11 a ride,” Wallace told Alberg.

“A lot of that was the cost of a driver,” Alberg replied. “It’s time to relook at that as an autonomous circulator.”

Just make sure to add some wineries to the route.

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