Where City Hall Drives Innovation Forward

City leaders may prove more influential to driverless cars’ long term success in cities than an abundance of parking lots or four-way intersections.

By Xische Editorial, December 13, 2018

Source: MicroOne/ Shutterstock

Source: MicroOne/Shutterstock

Is the dream of fully-fledged self-driving cars coming close to reality? Last month, the driverless industry took a big step forward in a sleepy corner of Arizona. Waymo, one of the world’s leading driverless companies, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced that it was launching a “robo-taxi” service in a quiet suburb of Phoenix. Users enrolled in Waymo’s early rider program are now able to use the company’s app to hail a self-driving car that can deliver them to any point in the small suburb.

Waymo’s announcement, on the surface, is a milestone in the development of self-driving cars. Creating environmentally sustainable and safe self-driving cars is one of the most difficult technological puzzles of the modern era. Programmers have to do more than write complex code. They need to create artificial intelligence that mimics how a human would react to any situation behind the wheel at a moment’s notice. The level of sophistication needed to accomplish this task is on par with humanity’s greatest intellectual triumphs. It is no wonder Waymo’s achievement in Arizona was greeted with such fanfare. 

The rollout, however, was far from a robot-led driverless car wonderland of science fiction novels. In fact, Waymo’s self-driving cars still have humans behind the wheel, monitoring systems in case of emergency. Alex Davies, writing for Wired, pointed out that the launch was actually little more than a software update and branding tweak designed to safeguard Waymo’s position as the industry leader.

Perhaps the hero of Waymo’s recent announcement was not the car but rather City Hall. Suburban Phoenix is an ideal environment for driverless car development. Streets are wide and pothole free, thanks to the dry and sunny weather. Family-friendly developments offer plenty of complex intersections for training driverless fleets. And pedestrian traffic is minimal, reducing accident risk. But the participation of city leaders, who have collaborated with engineers since the Waymo came two years ago, may prove more influential to driverless cars’ long term success than an abundance of parking lots or four-way intersections.

The fire chief, according to Wired magazine, consulted on the safety features of Waymo’s fleet. The police chief reached an understanding on who would be ticketed in case a Waymo car broke the law. The city planner is consulting with Waymo to understand how to plan roads for a robotic future. Meanwhile, Waymo’s presence has coincided with the arrival of other technology giants to the area. Signalling an openness to future technology from city hall can lead to new opportunities across the technology sector.

While the evolution of driverless cars may seem incremental, remarkable progress is happening beneath the surface. Over the last decade, Waymo’s cars have reportedly driven 10 million miles in 25 America cities, and another 10 billion in simulation. These staggering statistics reveal an industry that is making serious strides towards a driverless future. As Waymo cars continue to learn in the United States, the self-driving industry is spreading its wings around the world. City leaders who are willing to embrace the fledgling technology stand to reap the benefits of ushering in a new future for their city.

 Dubai, in particular, is one place watching the Waymo launch and the rest of the industry closely. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, recently announced plans to make driverless transportation a major target for the emirate by 2030. Following this decision, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority endorsed standards of testing for electric, hybrid and self-driving vehicles designed to ensure that the emirate will be a pioneer in the field.

 In announcing his push to make Dubai a laboratory for self-driving cars, Sheikh Mohammed said that he wants driverless transport to account for 25 percent of all journeys. “Dubai is surpassing cities of the world and achieving unique transport by using artificial intelligence to serve humankind,” Sheikh Mohammed described in his vision. “It is establishing a globally unique model for future cities, and it is turning into the world’s biggest laboratory for technology, research, and development. Today, we defined a clear strategy and specific goals for smart transportation, so it may become one of the main axes in the achievement of a sustainable economy in the UAE.”

Critical to Dubai Government’s perspective on driverless transport is the idea that autonomous transportation through artificial intelligence is fundamental to a smart city. Dubai will use self-driving cars as part of the glue that binds its smart city foundation. With the resources, infrastructure, and knowledge to perfect self-driving cars, there are few cities in the world better suited to become the next hotspot for driverless technology.  

As with any historic technological achievement, the knock-on effects of pioneering driverless transport will have untold effects on Dubai’s growing knowledge economy. The race for better military equipment in the 20th century resulted in the unintended discovery of microwave technology. Similar unintended discoveries will surely bubble up from research in the driverless industry.

 Given the level of AI sophistication required in driverless transport, the real knock-on effects will be in the AI realm. Indeed, engineers working to solve the driverless puzzle could stumble upon the next great AI training algorithm. Given Dubai’s geographic position at the heart of the emerging world and diverse population of more than 200 nationalities, a robust knowledge economy supported by the city’s investment in advanced technology could quickly attract interest from across the world to solve challenges even meatier than autonomous vehicle

While Waymo’s recent news in Arizona might not be the watershed moment the tech community was hoping for, it is one of the events that keep both industry and city leaders engaged and striving. For a burgeoning tech community like Dubai, such an event reminds all of those working towards a driverless future of the promise and peril that great leaps in technology can have for humanity and the need to build the foundations of tomorrow’s smart city, today.