Autonomous vehicle test could include OKC streetcar system

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

by Brian Brus

Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – The streetcar system now being installed in downtown Oklahoma City could receive funding assistance from the federal government as a test case in autonomous vehicle operations, city officials said Tuesday.

Mayor Mick Cornett told City Council members that the MAPS 3 project is putting the city in a novel position on the cutting edge of traffic technology. The U.S. Department of Transportation has shown interest in how self-driving computer programs being developed by the likes of Waymo and Alphabet interact with each other in real-life conditions.

As a fortunate matter of timing, Oklahoma City is nearly ready to start testing a modern streetcar on a new rail loop through its downtown districts. It will make dozens of stops along its 7-mile route and navigate alongside automobile traffic and pedestrians.

Embark administrator Jason Ferbrache said track installation is about half complete and the streetcar will soon be ready for Federal Transit Administration testing and certification through the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s transit safety oversight office. The FTA will be on site in May or June, he said.

Cornett said he confirmed with the manufacturer that Oklahoma City’s system will be compatible with autonomous AI, or artificial intelligence. A human operator’s interaction could be limited to oversight and emergencies.

“The USDOT is looking to partner with local governments,” Cornett said. “With that kind of knowledge, in place, we have been in discussions about how perhaps Oklahoma City could work with the USDOT on being the first streetcar that investigated autonomous technology.”

He added that federal funding would need to be firmly in place before Oklahoma City started down the autonomous path. The city is already working on a fare study, contract for naming and sponsorship rights and a public education program to drive ridership.

“I don’t think we need to be a testing site for the rest of the world without partners on the line,” Cornett said, adding that potential parties include businesses, universities and tribal agencies. “There are a lot of partners that would naturally be inclined to invest in this kind of technology.”

Mark Dorn and Veronica Siranosian at AECOM Corp. said they talked with local universities and companies to confirm they’re developing autonomous AI technology, which also might dovetail into collaborations with the city. Dorn said other transit agencies have also expressed interest. He offered his company’s aid in applying for government funds for a pilot project.

The streetcar is one of several projects under the $777 million MAPS 3 penny sales tax that voters approved in 2009. The Metropolitan Area Projects package also includes a new convention center, large central park, walking trails and senior fitness centers.

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