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Profile: Seattle Department of Transportation

PAVE: How is the City of Seattle preparing for AVs? What steps have already been taken?

The City of Seattle and its Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been preparing for autonomous vehicles (AV) for some time. In 2017, SDOT released the New Mobility Playbook which offers strategies for shaping the future of automated transportation to put people first as we work towards delivering our mission of providing affordable access to places and opportunities. Within the New Mobility Playbook’s Preliminary Automated Mobility Policy Framework, we note that:

“Like any other emerging technology, the City of Seattle must shape how automated mobility impacts and benefits our citizens even as the details of the technology are in flux. We will plan for the inevitable emergence of connected and fully automated vehicles with a historical lens. Cities around the country continue to learn tough lessons from overreliance on the automobile. As a new model of automobility is introduced to Seattle, we have a century’s worth of experience understanding and managing the impacts of motor vehicles. As automated vehicles arrive in Seattle, we must ask: What do we want our city to look like? To what extent should we use these new technologies to ensure our citizens are included, happier, healthier, safer, and more financially secure?”

Known autonomous vehicle testing began in Seattle in 2019 with NVIDIA publishing a video of the perception system of its autonomous driving system. In 2021, Zoox began testing in Seattle. Washington State allows for the testing of AV with and without a safety driver. Given the challenges of operating in a complex urban environment, SDOT acted on Strategy 5.1 of the New Mobility Playbook which is to, “Establish a comprehensive set of people-first policy parameters to introduce and manage fully shared, electric, connected, and automated vehicle[s]”. To this end, we launched a permit program for AV testing in Seattle in November 2022. The permit supplements existing state testing requirements by requiring a safety driver, first responder plan, first responder demonstration event, public outreach, and additional insurance. In 2023, we issued testing permits to Zoox and NVIDIA.

Recognizing the regional impact of AVs, we worked collaboratively with the City of Bellevue to develop a Strategic Vision for Automated Vehicles. This document outlines a set of regional goals and time phased actions to realize the benefits of AV technology in our area.

PAVE: What AV deployments/tests have taken place in Seattle?

As of July 2023, Seattle has active testing permits issued to Zoox and NVIDIA. Zoox is testing Level 3 automation and aims to provide mobility-as-a-service ride-hailing to users. NVIDIA is testing Level 3 automation and aims to provide and end-to-end platform for the transportation industry to develop autonomous vehicles. As of July 2023, Zoox and NVIDIA are the only two companies with active testing in Washington State.

PAVE: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your work with AVs?

As we state in the Strategic Vision for Automated Vehicles, “Managing the advancement and utilization of technologies such as AVs to the benefit of the Puget Sound Region requires a cohesive vision, collaborative partnerships, and conscientious decision-making about what regional priorities are supported by policy.” We have learned that understanding use cases and the priorities of all the stakeholders involved is necessary in ensuring that emerging mobility contributes towards our mission of providing safe and affordable access to places and opportunities for everyone.

Read more about Seattle DOT’s work with AVs on their website or follow them on social media

About the Public Sector Advisory Council: PAVE’s public sector partners help to guide PAVE on its mission of promoting fact-based public discussion about automated vehicles. Council members serve in a strictly advisory capacity, providing PAVE and its members with opinions and recommendations related to AV technology and its societal effects.