Giving people a hands-on experience might be one of the best ways to drive acceptance of a new and potentially scary, unfamiliar technology. Talk to anyone trying to sell electric cars and they’ll tell you the easiest way to do that is with a 10-minute test drive, after all. That’s a large part of the reasoning behind a plan to bring self-driving cars to Washington, DC. What made this particular proposal particularly interesting to me—someone who writes about autonomous cars on an almost daily basis—is that the idea would bring them to my actual neighborhood here in the nation’s capital.
It’s all down to the Southwest Business Improvement District, which recently issued the request for information in partnership with the mayor’s office. (BIDs are nonprofit organizations that work with businesses to improve local communities and are relatively common here in the District.) But this isn’t a proposal to turn Southwest DC into an East Coast version of Phoenix, with hundreds of autonomous vehicles testing all over the place. Nor is it asking for applications to launch a robotaxi service—at least not yet.
Rather, the idea is to use a particularly low-traffic stretch of 10th St SW, also known as L’Enfant Plaza—which runs between the National Mall and a new massive development on the waterfront—to present this developing technology to city residents and workers, as well as the vast hordes of tourists that come to visit the monuments and museums.
Steve Moore, SWBID’s executive director, says the idea stemmed from his discovery of Olli, an autonomous people mover being developed by Local Motors a few miles to the east at National Harbor. “We wanted a demo of what they were doing on 10th St that could showcase the technology to visitors to the Mall, the new Spy Museum, and the Wharf,” Moore told me. “It’s a perfect location; there are no traffic intersections and very little traffic. We’re not looking for someone looking for a contract with the city; it’s more for people to show off their ideas to the public.”
Indeed, L’Enfant Plaza has always been a bit of a dead zone, despite its prime location. Built in the late 1960s, it has some wonderful architecture courtesy of I.M. Pei and is home to the headquarters of the US Postal Service. But despite sitting atop one of the city’s busiest Metro and light-rail stations, it also features a large, failed shopping mall, and even fans of Brutalism find the place “hostile to humans.”
That hostility doesn’t apply to self-driving cars, though. With little in the way of human-driven traffic—about 4,300 cars a day according to a 2014 survey—no intersections to worry about, and an easy place to turn around at each end, it’s easy to imagine autonomous vehicles running rather untaxing demonstrations up and down the strip all day long. And with a 1,500-space parking garage underneath, there would be plenty of room to maintain and charge them when not in use.
“The 10th Street SW corridor is currently the fastest way to get from the National Mall—which attracts 20 million annual visitors—to the District’s newest world-class waterfront destination. Our hope is that [autonomous vehicles] will enhance this conduit, act as a catalyst for innovative mobility solutions across the District, and ultimately create an interconnected, sustainable community. This RFI is just the first step in what we hope will ultimately become a successful—and historic—pilot project,” Moore said.
Muriel Bowser, DC’s mayor, is also setting up an autonomous vehicle working group so that the various city agencies can prepare for the technology. “We will keep the District on the cutting edge of autonomous vehicles and do so in a way that benefits our residents,” said Mayor Bowser. “Washington, DC is a creative, tech-savvy city, and as we grow, we will always be exploring and investing in innovation and finding ways to make it more inclusive.”
Although the District has had a law on the books allowing autonomous vehicles to operate on its streets since 2012, it might require some tweaking for vehicles like Olli or the similar concept from Navya. That’s because, as written, it still requires a human safety operator “seated in the control seat of the vehicle while in operation who is prepared to take control of the autonomous vehicle at any moment,” something those people movers lack.
SWBID wants applications in to the RFI by April 13 of this year, and, as a local resident with more than a passing interest in how it develops, it’s one I’ll be following closely.