Power to the People: Five Major Cities Give Residents the Reins for Autonomous Car Ideas

By: Bridget Clerkin October 9, 2018
The Knight Foundation recently awarded millions to 5 cities in an effort to increase public support for self-driving vehicles.
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If The Great Gatsby taught us anything, it’s that those with money are rarely lacking for company. The pursuit of more party guests—albeit one in particular—was practically the only reason Jay Gatsby bothered to amass his fortune at all.

And now one philanthropic organization is hoping that a little extra funding can help self-driving cars enjoy that same proximity to popularity.

As an advocacy group focused on journalism, communities, art, technology, and learning and impact, the Knight Foundation recently awarded more than $5 million to 5 different cities, all eager to integrate their present infrastructure with the futuristic rides. Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Jose, and Long Beach have a wide range of transportation needs but will all be given the same goal: use the money to get residents more involved in self-driving auto initiatives.

The total adoption of autonomous cars will involve the coordination of a nearly infinite number of moving parts—and perhaps as much as a generation—to fully come to fruition. But even within that complex process, community engagement may be the stickiest area for advocates of the technology.

Poll after poll has shown that people are either not ready for and don’t want the vehicles—or, at best, they’re sick of the idea.

But Knight Foundation officials have said that a major goal of the grant is to get people more directly involved—and hopefully more excited.

Indeed, enough residents have responded to the news that several pilot projects are already taking shape across the selected cities.

Detroit has pledged to focus on the “first-mile-last-mile” issue—the idea that even people who take public transportation need a way to get from their homes to those stations and vice versa. The city is envisioning autonomous cars as central to those transitions.

Long Beach will take a similar approach with its project, while San Jose is looking for different connections the cars can make. As the heart of Silicon Valley, the unofficial capitol of autonomous cars, San Jose plans to study how people can use the vehicles to get to “destination” areas, such as shopping districts or places with an active nightlife.

Miami wants to use its autonomous infrastructure to aid—and eventually replace—its current bus system with a fleet of self-driving shuttles. And Pittsburgh, although given a head start on the autonomous issue thanks to the 2016 launch of Uber’s driverless taxi program there—is reportedly still unsure how the funds will be used.

It’s not just the residents of these cities that will be speaking up about the projects. Those overseeing the programs in each city anticipate to meet regularly over the course of several years to swap notes on their respective progress.

Although we’d imagine these get-togethers will hopefully have a jovial tone, they’ll likely be nothing like one of Gatsby’s swinging to-dos.

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