Steve Marshall is directing the city of Bellevue’s efforts to bring a fleet of self-driving vanpools to the region. If it is successful, it could shuttle up to 3,000 commuters along the I-405 corridor from Auburn to Kirkland. Aaron Kunkler/Staff photo

Steve Marshall is directing the city of Bellevue’s efforts to bring a fleet of self-driving vanpools to the region. If it is successful, it could shuttle up to 3,000 commuters along the I-405 corridor from Auburn to Kirkland. Aaron Kunkler/Staff photo

Bellevue, Kirkland plan to bring self-driving vanpools to the Eastside

Following a federal grant application, the vans could hit the streets beginning next spring.

As the technology powering self-driving vehicles continues to advance, the cities of Bellevue and Kirkland have a plan to bring a fleet of vans to the Eastside.

The CommutePool program was drafted by staff from the two cities, which submitted a grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation last week asking for $3 million to help fund the $9 million project. Bellevue Transportation Technology Partnership Manager Steve Marshall has been working with large employers in the area to gather support for the electric, self-driving vanpools. The response from companies has been positive, with many also writing letters of support in the city’s grant application.

Employers have been growing more concerned with the area’s gridlock, which forces moderate- and low-income workers further away from their jobs in urban centers like Kirkland or Bellevue. This in turn creates longer commutes and more traffic congestion. Marshall gave the example of the Bellevue School District, which he said loses nearly one quarter of its new teachers each year due to a high cost of living and long commutes in the area.

“This is hopefully helping people who are not making as much as they need to afford a home in downtown Bellevue or Seattle,” Marshall said.

King County has operated a van pool program since 1991, but participants must sign up for the service and pick-up times going both directions are pre-set. This means workers with increasingly flexible schedules often can’t use them. The proposed autonomous fleet would let commuters book their schedule through an app being developed by Amazon. Marshall said strides in the sensors autonomous vehicles rely on as well as safety developments over the last year has sped up the date when he thinks the vehicles will become widespread.

“All of these things are made more realistic and coming sooner,” he said.

However, while self-driving vehicles have the ability to eliminate human error, making them substantially safer than human drivers, they are not without their risks. In March, an Arizona woman was hit and killed by an autonomous car operated by Uber, even with a human driver behind the wheel. A police report released this month stated the driver was watching the reality TV show “The Voice” and that the car was not equipped with emergency braking technology enabled.

In a separate incident from March, a self-driving Tesla crashed into a highway divider in California, killing the 38-year-old driver. Mercury News reported the driver did not have his hands on the wheel for six seconds before the collision and should have had time to correct his car.

Marshall said the autonomous vehicles coming to Bellevue will have human drivers until they are confident the vehicles can perform safely under any situation.

“Our number one priority is safety, so we’ll proceed in a step by step way,” he said.

A human driver piloting the vehicles will let the computers in the vehicles build a complex map of its routes, making it more reactive to other cars, pedestrians and other objects in its path. Once they are confident in the fleet’s safety, it will be switched to fully-autonomous driving.

The vehicles themselves will be operated and maintained by their manufacturers, which could range from car manufacturing companies like Ford or Nissan to tech companies like Google, which is developing Waymo, the navigation system that the vehicles will use. Marshall said this will reduce costs for the cities. The motors in electric vehicles also offer lifespans more than double that of fuel-powered engines. Additionally, renting vehicles to cities in a public/private partnership could result in higher profits for the companies.

“They believe that there are better margins in that than just selling the vehicles,” Marshall said.

If the three-year federal grant is approved by this October, Marshall hopes to field a fleet of up to 200 vehicles starting next spring. If the program proves successful, the fleet could be expanded to serve up to 3,000 commuters along the I-405 corridor from Auburn to Kirkland.

A previous story of this incorrectly said the Bellevue school district loses around one-quarter of its teachers. Instead, it loses nearly one-quarter of new teachers annually.

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