Why experts say the Pacific Northwest is a ‘perfect laboratory’ for autonomous technology
The hype cycle for autonomous vehicles may have slowed down after the March 2018 fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber car, but for AV booster Bruce Agnew, the Pacific Northwest offers a wide range of applications for the technology that go far beyond passengers traveling big-city streets.
As director of ACES — a Madrona Venture Group and INRIX-backed network promoting autonomous, connected, electric, and shared vehicles — Agnew sees the diverse geography and economic opportunities of the region as ripe for those four trends to converge in transportation.
While much of the attention on autonomous vehicles thus far has focused on their urban applications, as the everyday car driver imagines what it might be like to relinquish the wheel, that’s not where the technology is heading first, experts say.
“We’re going to see faster deployment of autonomous trucks, especially in mining and agriculture,” Agnew told GeekWire on Monday at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Seattle on the sidelines of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER)’s Economic Leadership Forum.
PNWER is a binational economic cooperation forum headquartered in Seattle. Chartered by statute from state and provincial legislatures, it encompasses Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Northwest Territories, Oregon, Saskatchewan, Washington, and Yukon.
Agnew has traveled across this broadly defined Pacific Northwest, where he has observed innovations in electrification and autonomous vehicles far from major cities.
“We are the perfect case study for a palette of autonomous vehicle deployments,” he said. “The political unity is remarkable, between Democrats and Republicans and across the border.”
Already, Idaho-based Hecla Mining is operating a 24-hour autonomous truck at a gold mine in Québec and reporting cost savings, increased payload, and decreased energy use. A Saskatchewan entrepreneur invented an autonomous combine that can harvest a line of crops with one-millimeter precision.
Agnew predicts autonomous innovations will soon change how extractive industries, like the Alberta tar sands, operate. “Guys are driving massive trucks and when the fog rolls in, it’s a scary scene,” he said. “If we’re able to get them out and driving the truck from a remote, padded, warm place – that’s a better job.”
Autonomous innovations in maritime shipping could also produce both cost and safety benefits by reducing needed crew and averting environmentally catastrophic accidents like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to Agnew. “Captain Hazelwood going on the Bligh Reef because he missed a buoy — that won’t happen again,” he said.
These deployments are on track to outpace autonomous vehicles for passenger travel. One key prerequisite for self-driving travel in cities is the electric vehicle infrastructure those AVs will rely on.
On that score, Oregon has sped ahead of Washington state, Agnew said, despite a concerted effort to establish the West Coast Green Highway along Interstate 5 and Highway 99.
“Oregon has been more aggressive than Washington on electric charging stations,” he said. “It has clearly been the leader on electrification.”
However, Washington is aware of its missing links and the state is playing catch up, especially outside the heavily trafficked I-5 corridor. The Washington Department of Transportation publishes a “gap map” of missing links for EV charging on the state highway system. In 2017, the agency announced $1 million in grants to start filling in those gaps. Nine communities in eastern Washington have installed or are in the process of installing DC fast chargers.
“There was a lot of interest from those communities to install fast-charging infrastructure and apply for state grant funding,” said Jennifer Harper of Energy Northwest, a non-profit municipal corporation that owns and operates renewable energy generators.
Even more remote, Yukon (among Canada’s clean energy leaders) has installed its first electric vehicle charging stations, which will be studied as a test case for EV charging in extremely cold environments. Combined with new charging stations in Skagway, Alaska, electric vehicle owners from the Lower 48 can conceivably take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Bellingham, Wash. to Skagway, charge their vehicle, and continue on to Whitehorse, Yukon.
Similar disparities exist between the Pacific Northwest’s main cities. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are key to the “shared” and “connected” vision that ACES promotes. While people in Seattle took 24 million rides on those platforms last year, Vancouver, B.C. is only now on the cusp of allowing them to operate in the city.
Finally, even though Bellevue, Wash. is accelerating its effort to get self-driving cars on the road, neither Bellevue nor Seattle have an urban AV proving ground akin to Uber’s self-driving tech center in Pittsburgh.
“It would be a great thing for the Northwest if we were to figure out a destination where we were to test and validate. We have the talent and financial resources,” said Fran Dougherty, CTO of Microsoft Automotive. “Not just for this part of the country, but to show the world.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the capital of Yukon.
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