No one knows how self-driving cars will change transportation, but San Diego is starting to plan for that uncertain future.

The San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, is making plans to ease technologies like autonomous or connected vehicles onto the region’s roads in the coming decades.

SANDAG says the 30 miles of express, carpool and bus lanes it has built on the I-15, I-5 and I-805 could double as testing grounds for driverless cars. The agency also plans to spend another $21.2 billion by 2050 building another 160 miles of those lanes.

“I don’t know if any of us know the future,” said Charles Stoll, SANDAG’s director of land use and planning. “I would say each time, if you go back over the past several regional transportation plans, we do more and more on the technology side.”

SANDAG’s most recent long-term transportation plan recognized driverless cars could be a factor by 2025.

“Autonomous vehicle technologies will transform public transit as well, increasing efficiency and accessibility while reducing congestion,” the report said.

SANDAG is working with planning agencies in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Sacramento to figure out how to incorporate new technologies, Stoll said. The organizations may collectively hire a firm to help plan for the future.

“We’re all in the same boat, trying to figure out how to prepare for this coming technology,” Stoll said.

Automated vehicles aren’t the only technology that could transform San Diego roads. Transportation planners are also excited by the potential of connected vehicles – cars that exchange information between other cars and infrastructure like traffic lights.

But planners are quickly recognizing the many ways the technologies could shake up the status quo.

For one, they could save governments and companies lots of money – and eliminate some existing jobs. Paid drivers wouldn’t be nearly as common if self-driving vehicles were connected to public transportation or ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft.

It could also make car ownership obsolete, saving low-income workers a major expense.

And as self-driving cars can give one person a ride, then immediately begin their next trip, cities suddenly don’t need to invest as much space or money in parking.

Driverless vehicles can also help the elderly and blind, who face difficulties in using existing public transportation and may not be able to drive themselves.

If the cars have the technology to exchange information with other vehicles behind and in front of them, it could help prevent congestion and accidents. If buses connect with traffic lights, it could expedite public transit, giving the buses all greenlights.

Of course, that’s a lot of coulds and ifs.

Yet city officials and staff in Chula Vista are likewise prepping for self-driving vehicles and smart city infrastructure. The city manager, Gary Halbert, said Chula Vista is looking at expanded bus rapid transit lanes as a potential test bed for autonomous transit vehicles.

“If you could get to a place, where you have a bus system that could run for less money than it would cost today and you could get more frequent service, that would be pretty exciting,” said Halbert.

The city applied for a $40 million smart city grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Its proposal emphasized autonomous vehicles. It didn’t get the money, but Halbert said he plans to continue applying for funding opportunities to pursue the technology.

Intelligent transportation consultants, who advise government agencies throughout the country with technology like autonomous vehicles, say SANDAG and the San Diego region are ahead of the curve.

“They’re smart about it,” said Carlos Ortiz, COO of ADVANTEC Consulting Engineers Inc., which consults with planning organizations on transportation plans.

Bob Denaro, an intelligent transportation systems consultant, called SANDAG proactive.

“It has to start someplace, so it’s good to hear that San Diego is doing something,” Denaro said.

He said it’s up to local planners to make sure the technology ends up improving people’s lives, not making them worse.

The federal government is investing time and money in connected vehicles based on research showing it would reduce traffic accidents. But connecting infrastructure like traffic lights with those vehicles will rely on local governments because they make the majority of infrastructure investments.

“It’s ultimately going to be city planners saying, ‘Hey, we have a model for how this is going to work,” Denaro said.

Ortiz said San Diego also has updated technology, like cameras and transponders, that could be easily modified to eventually make way for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

“It’s promising, it’s coming,” he said. “When you have companies like Uber and Google and the automakers jumping into it, it’s happened. They’re not going back.”

SANDAG has long been a proponent of emerging technology.

Back in the ’90s, the agency set up one of the first driverless car tests, Stoll said. The test consisted of putting magnets along lanes on a portion of the I-15 to see if cars could react to the magnets and stay in their lanes without a driver guiding them.

Stoll sat in one of those test cars.

“Every year that goes by, we’ll know more and we’ll be looking for ways to incorporate new technologies,” he said.

Not everyone is excited that SANDAG is embracing the new technology.

Several organizations submitted responses to a paper on emerging technologies the agency wrote, arguing an auto-centric focus on new technologies would have environmental and equity consequences.

A letter from the City Heights Community Development Corporation, the Cleveland National Forrest Foundation and the Environmental Health Coalition urged the agency to prioritize technologies in other forms of transportation, like public transit, biking and walking.

“There needs to be a more equitable approach to the research and discussion of the various emerging technologies for increasing mode-shares that are more efficient, healthier for people and can improve local economies and reduce air pollution in overburdened communities,” the letter says.

Both Denaro and Stoll acknowledge the concerns, but say it all depends on how autonomous and connected vehicles are implemented.

If they are implemented through a ride-sharing model, for example, then people wouldn’t need to own cars. The autonomous vehicles could also solve so-called last-mile issues that keep people from using the public transportation that’s already in place because it’s too far from their homes.

“The future is likely going to be a mix between autonomous vehicles and current public transportation vehicles,” Denaro said. “No one knows exactly how this might work, but frankly, I’m optimistic.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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