Why Seattle’s neighbor, Bellevue, is winning the race toward self-driving cars

Aerial view of the Central District, Lake Washington, and Bellevue. (Flickr Photo / Joe Wolf)

Seattle is an innovation hub with transportation pain points aching to be solved. For those reasons, the city seems like the obvious choice to pioneer self-driving cars in Washington now that Gov. Jay Inslee has given the green light.

But Seattle’s neighbor, Bellevue, is speeding ahead in the race to get autonomous vehicles on city streets. So says Bruce Agnew, director of the ACES Network, which stands for autonomous, connected, electric, and shared. Agnew says that Bellevue is prepared to put up the funding with a technology levy for transportation programs and develop the necessary infrastructure to begin testing self-driving cars.

ACES Director Bruce Agnew. (LinkedIn Photo)

“The most promising project is the City of Bellevue, which has fully embraced the ACES agenda and actually passed a technology levy with dedicated funding of several million dollars a year for pilot projects,” Agnew said. “It ranges all the way from coordinating traffic signals to testing automated vehicles on city streets.”

ACES was formed by INRIX CEO Bryan Mistele and Madrona Venture Group Managing Partner Tom Alberg. Its members include Madrona — which has invested in startups developing technology for autonomous vehicles — Amazon, Uber, Puget Sound Energy, and others. Tech leaders formed ACES to accelerate deployment of self-driving cars in the Seattle region.

The group’s work ranges from advocating for policy changes in Olympia to releasing an annual report on the viability of getting dedicated self-driving car lanes on I-5. It’s still early days for ACES but Agnew is hopeful that his group can help get a pilot program started as early as 2018.

Bellevue’s advantage has a lot to do with funding, Agnew says. Seattle simply hasn’t set aside the dollars necessary to fund an expensive self-driving car pilot. Bellevue has also hired Steve Marshall, who co-founded a transportation think tank, to help the city integrate new technology into its transportation infrastructure.

One roadblock in both cities is the coveted curb space that self-driving cars would need for pickup and drop off. Agnew envisions creating dedicated, shared curb space that could be used by ride-hailing companies, like Uber and Lyft, busses, and autonomous vehicles. He thinks dynamic signs could notify vehicles when it’s their turn.

Google has already started a very limited test of its self-driving car program in Kirkland, Wash. with a driver behind the wheel, just in case.

In the Bellevue region, Agnew says there are several “hot spots” that could host autonomous vehicle pilots. He said the most promising route connects Bellevue’s Eastgate Park-and-Ride to Factoria, where T-Mobile, Intellectual Ventures, and other businesses are based.

“Bellevue is the most likely one given the resources they have and the interest to do it,” Agnew said.