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SF pitches $149 million plan to replace cars with self-driving vehicles

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San Francisco is competing for a $50 million federal grant that would help The City’s effort to reduce congestion on roads. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s future is autonomous and shared vehicles – and that future may be only a decade away.

At least, that’s the grand vision of regional leaders including Mayor Ed Lee, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, researchers at University of California at Berkeley and corporate giants like Google, Uber and Lyft.

Those leaders Wednesday morning packed a City Hall meeting room to make their case to U.S.Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose Department of Transportation is offering a $50 million “Smart City” grant to one of seven US cities, all of which are pitching a vision of transportation of the future. San Francisco is among the final seven contestants.

San Francisco’s plan is not quite flying cars – but it may sound like the futuristic cartoon, The Jetsons, to those who suffer The City’s congested streets.

However, the ideas may not hinge on the grant, Mayor Ed Lee said Wednesday. “We actually should be doing this outside of the grant. The grant seemed to instigate something exciting,” he said.

Per The City’s plan, autonomous buses would be connected to each other via wireless technology to avoid collisions, shared bikes would dot The City, and taxis, Uber and Lyft vehicles would ferry commuters in groups without drivers.

The City would own a fleet of electric vehicles, and neighborhood shuttles would connect bus lines to homes in less dense outer neighborhoods.

This future may also include transforming parking garages into affordable housing.

Ultimately, at least 10 percent of San Francisco’s car use would shift to “sharing” rides, or taking transit.

All of this transit – from bikes to buses to autonomous vehicles – would be available by a single “mobility app” that would be part Uber, part NextMuni and part Google Maps, all rolled into one.

Foxx and others will decide who receives the grant within the next few weeks, he said, but first the cities must establish their vision.


Click the image above or click here to see the SFMTA’s Smart City presentation. Click here to read SFMTA’s Smart City vision statement.

Presenting San Francisco’s transit plan to Foxx was Tim Papandreou, head of SFMTA’s Office of Innovation.

“Our vision is really really bold. We’re ‘moon shotting’ it, mister secretary,” he told Foxx, “We want to launch the first shared, electric, connected and automated transportation system.”

More than 40 companies have committed to pitch in an additional $99 million of either funding or in-kind gifts should the grant be awarded to San Francisco, according to the SFMTA.

That includes $50 million from Ford Motor Company, and $30 million from Zoox, a tech company specializing in self driving cars, among others.

The SFMTA’s vision is for these shared, wirelessly connected autonomous vehicles to whisk people to anywhere in The City in 20 minutes. The new transit would improve safety, reduce greenhouse emissions, and allow for parking garages to be reclaimed for housing, Papandreou said.

The SFMTA doesn’t propose getting there overnight, however. Instead, the new transit options would be introduced in three-year phases over the next decade, according to the SFMTA.

Almost 10 companies are already testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, according to the SFMTA’s Smart City proposal. The report did not name these companies.

San Francisco is uniquely positioned to be a laboratory for transportation innovation, Papandreou said, since The City’s population boom makes its transportation needs immediate.

“You all are very familiar with rapid population growth,” Foxx noted, adding that ultimately the winner’s transportation vision could replicate throughout the country.

The City is also a hub of innovators, from Google, Uber and Lyft to UC Berkeley, planners said. Representatives from those companies were in attendance at the meeting, like Wayne Ting, head of Uber’s San Francisco office.

Sarah Hunter, head of policy at Google X, said San Francisco is unique because it doesn’t just think of driverless cars in terms of safety, but also “how these vehicles get used so they have positive social impacts.”

Though with all the tech leaders in attendance, Foxx warned, “I wouldn’t get too stuck on which gizmos are most eye popping” for San Francisco to win the grant.

Susan Shaheen, a UC Berkeley researcher and a premiere ride-hailing expert, said an unprecedented amount of data and community outreach would drive the shifts in transportation policy.

“If we knew what we were doing when we started, it wouldn’t be research,” she said.

Above, regional and city transportation leaders meet with Mayor Ed Lee and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Shaheen isn’t alone. The proposal includes a “massive” number of multidisciplinary UC Berkeley researchers, she said, including those in data privacy analysis, behavior analysis and more to test the new transit hypotheses made by San Francisco in the project.

In planning documents, the SFMTA describes possible first “Priority Development Areas” of new transit ideas as Treasure Island, Parkmerced, Hunters Point, the central waterfront, Mission Bay, Balboa Park and Glen Park, though the community would help decide.

Late night transit services would be considered in the Mission, Castro, South of Market, Marina, Nob Hill and Union Square neighborhoods, said Papandreou.

When the San Francisco Examiner asked Lee how he would pitch the idea of sharing vehicles to people who prefer to own cars, the mayor said it’s a question of personal interest.

Drivers have “got to be thinking about why they can’t be home spending time with the kids, or spending time in the classroom because of that [traffic] congestion,” Lee said.

He added, “This is a game changer, what we’re about to do.”

Below, a concept rendering of the SFMTA’s “mobility app,” which would coordinate transit across The City.


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  • sojourner_7

    SF screws up everything it touches. For true advancement in the field of autonomous autos, leave SF out of it.

  • Ragazzu

    Lee and the SFMTA: always eager to sell out their lawful, properly insured taxi division.

  • pulptrash

    This proposal is pure, unadulterated class warfare.

  • Not A Native

    Whether or not this will happen as its envisioned now, the concept of making transport within the City less private or dedicated and more shared is inevitable. The era of being able to always “buy your way out” of accommodating people around you is coming to an end. Its the only way that both density of population and quality of life can be maintained.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    ” Drivers have “got to be thinking about why they can’t be home spending time with the kids, or spending time in the classroom because of that [traffic] congestion,” Lee said.”

    I keep wondering that too! Of course, it takes me an hour to travel 4 miles to work on public transportation. If I drove in that traffic congestion, it would take me 20 minutes.

    You can imagine how little confidence I have in this city’s ability to design and build a transportation system that can replace driving for people who have the option to own a car.

    I will buy my car later this year.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    How so?

  • Mark Lewis

    Nero Lee fiddling while Rome burns. SFMTA knows what’s best for you! Red Carpet city!

  • SF Sunset Guy

    SFGov: $9 billion budget, $50 million grant, no improvement to MUNI, priceless.

  • SF Sunset Guy

    Not with the money that many of this towns citizens have, not anytime soon

  • pulptrash

    Don’t ask me, ask a taxi or bus driver and see how they feel about this proposal. Also this proposal assumes automation will speed up commute time and that is completely unproven.

  • Not A Native

    There are two basic ways to reduce demand for harmful things that people chose to obtain. Increase price and reduce supply. A third way is to prohibit or regulate it’s use by law. there is no legal right that having money entitles someone to everything possible. The “public interest” is still the most important principle in our democracy.

  • SF Sunset Guy

    We must be living in different democracies or different cities, you and I.

  • Not A Native

    What does that mean, other than you don’t agree with my comment but can’t compellingly refute it?

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Of you’re going to claim class warfare you need to at least lay out the mechanics of it. How is this class warfare? Because more people can afford Uber than a taxi? Because it’s easier to start working as an Uber driver than a taxi driver?

  • SF Sunset Guy

    There’s no evidence that the “public interest” is the most important principle in our so-called, convoluted democracy. Politicians sell out to the highest bidder, etc.

  • Not A Native

    The fact that some people are corrupt doesn’t alter the principles embedded in our law and tradition. You want to be in a perfect place? Then die and go to heaven !