Tech vets propose 150-mile driverless stretch

Spencer Soper
Bloomberg News

If you have nightmares about robots taking over the world, here’s something that might really scare you: some tech industry veterans in Seattle want to ban human drivers from a 150-mile stretch of Interstate 5 and reserve it for self-driving cars, trucks and buses.

The ribbon of highway between Seattle and Vancouver should be used as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles, according to a provocative proposal that says embracing the technology would save lives, ease congestion and be less expensive than a high-speed rail system.

Tom Alberg, co-founder of Madrona Venture Group and a board member of Inc., and Craig Mundie, a former Microsoft Corp. executive, suggest phasing it in over a decade, starting with allowing self-driving vehicles in car-pool lanes.

In an interview, Alberg said autonomous driving could take “two years, five years or 10 years” to become widespread. “But this is going to happen, and ultimately I’m convinced these will be safer than human drivers. Why not start planning for this now?”

If government leaders on both sides of the border form a team to explore such a plan, they would attract investment from Google, Uber, Ford and General Motors, he said, adding that doing so would put the region at the forefront of innovation and distinguish it from cities like Chicago, where an alderman wants to ban autonomous cars because safety concerns.

Safety has become front-of-mind since a man died in Florida after his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode failed to react to a truck crossing the road. Tesla has sought to put the incident in perspective, blogging that it was the first known fatality in more than 130 million miles of driving using its Autopilot features, compared with a death every 94 million miles for all cars.

Uber is running self-driving trials in Pittsburgh, and Google is testing its own technology in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington state.

The Seattle-Vancouver proposal calls for a decade-long plan to first allow self-driving cars and trucks in carpool lanes and ultimately allow only autonomous vehicles on the highway during peak travel periods. Human drivers would be allowed to cruise the stretch between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. weekdays and on weekends. Self-driving vehicles will move more people and goods on existing infrastructure since they can travel more tightly and at higher speeds with less braking, the report says.

“This proposal is not for the timid as initially it will be highly controversial because of natural skepticism about the likelihood and timing of autonomous vehicles and failure to recognize the benefits,” the reports says. But “widespread and universal adoption of autonomous vehicles is inevitable.”