Will the interstate highway between Seattle and Vancouver, known as the Cascadia Corridor, become the testing ground for an ambitious autonomous vehicle plan that would eventually eliminate human drivers from the I-5 altogether?
Seattle-based Madrona Venture Capital released a report on Monday, called “Autonomous Vehicle Plan for the I-5 Seattle/Vancouver B.C. Corridor”, which calls for the implementation of a plan over the next decade to accelerate the introduction of autonomous vehicles into this corridor, in the name of reducing congestion, improving the travel experience, reclaiming productive hours and reducing accidents.
Their plan begins gradually, initially allowing autonomous vehicles to share the I-5’s multi-occupant HOV lanes.
“Over time, with more and more autonomous vehicles on the road, this would evolve into HOV lanes being exclusively for autonomous vehicles,” continues the report. “The final step as autonomous vehicles largely replace existing vehicles would be to exclude non-autonomous vehicles from I-5 except for certain defined times when highways are not congested such as most of weekends and 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. on weekdays.”
The report stops just shy of suggesting that autonomous vehicles continue all the way to downtown Vancouver, suggesting instead that “your autonomous vehicle drop you off at the SkyTrain Bridgeport Station in Richmond near the airport and go park itself at the nearby park and ride lot or elsewhere or pick up another passenger,” citing the challenges of continuing past the airport through the city streets with their multitude of traffic light stops.
Unlike other metropolitan areas such as Toronto and Montreal, where a trip to the airport is essentially a half-day excursion if you account for early arrival and lining up for security, Vancouver’s airport is actually a very manageable distance from the city, with the SkyTrain departing every six minutes for a mere 18-minute journey downtown.
The report makes the case that the lost productivity alone owing to people focused solely on driving accounts for “more than $1 trillion a year in the U.S.”, never mind the costs associated with human-caused vehicle accidents and deaths, not to mention efficiencies created by making traffic flow more efficient, and reducing vehicle traffic’s environmental impact.
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The report points to the benefits of increased safety and reduced reliance on traditional fuels, since the adoption of autonomous car technology is more likely to be powered by electricity.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the U.S.’s annual 32,000 traffic fatality count could be reduced by as much as one-third with the introduction of forward collision prevention and side view assists alone, with a much greater reduction possible if automation could replace the main cause of vehicle-related fatalities and accidents, which is human error.
The invite-only Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference is wrapping up today in Vancouver, organized by the Business Council of B.C. and featuring Microsoft founder Bill Gates and current CEO Satya Nadella, along with politicians like B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and a host of local CEOs and academics, all discussing how the Cascadia region can foster closer ties, seeing as several Seattle-based companies, such as Microsoft and Amazon, have opened Vancouver offices recent in years.
With the willingness to create a Pacific Northwest technology hub already in full swing, there are very practical reasons why strengthening business ties between the two cities by introducing a high-tech solution to ease the 225-kilometre, 2.5 hour commute might not seem particularly outlandish.
The long-term dream of a high-speed rail line between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver may be out of reach, given that estimates peg its cost at anywhere between $125 million and $1 billion per mile.
In the meantime, an interim technological fix like creating an autonomous vehicle corridor between the two cities may go a long way to fostering the nascent tech hub already taking shape.