By Elliot Njus

The Oregonian

PORTLAND — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declared the city “open for business” to companies developing autonomous vehicles.

Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman directed the Transportation Bureau to draft policies for autonomous vehicles that would give developers a path to apply for permits to test them within the city, including on open, public roads.

Wheeler, speaking before the Portland Business Alliance, said the framework would create a “fair and level playing field” for autonomous vehicle companies.

“We can’t simply dismiss the idea that autonomous vehicles are going to be a big part of our transportation system,” Wheeler said. “Instead of waiting for this new technology to come here and have us confront it, the responsible thing to do is to prepare for this future.”

He said getting ahead of the issue would help Portland shape the technology to suit the needs of the city and its residents.

Wheeler said companies wishing to test their vehicles in Portland, whether on closed courses or on public roads, would have to demonstrate that the vehicles are safe. Transportation Bureau staff said they likely would hew closely to guidelines released last year by the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Leah Treat, the Transportation Bureau director, said the city would aim to craft policies that would reduce congestion, vehicle-miles traveled and pollution, largely by prioritizing shared fleets over privately owned vehicles.

“If we simply replace all of the cars on the road with driverless cars, we’re not going to be any better off today,” she said.

Wheeler has previously expressed enthusiasm for embracing self-driving vehicles. He said in a March City Council meeting he would like to see the city conduct a pilot focused on autonomous vehicles.

“We’re all warming up for a race, but we don’t know what the race is yet,” he said at the earlier meeting. “We don’t know what the trajectory of autonomous or linked vehicles will be, and we don’t have a clear understanding on what that means in terms of infrastructure and policy. But we know it’s coming.”

In his former role as deputy director for the Transportation Bureau, Wheeler chief of staff Maurice Henderson coordinated the city’s bid to win the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, a competition for $50 million to implement technologies that include autonomous and wirelessly connected vehicles. Columbus, Ohio, eventually won the competition.

Others on the City Council are skeptical. During the same council meeting, Commissioner Amanda Fritz questioned whether the city should embrace self-driving cars.

“I think we need to take a step back,” she said. “I’m concerned about a future where people go from morning to night not talking to anybody. You call yourself an autonomous vehicle, you go by yourself to pick up the groceries that have been collected for you. … Is this something that we want?”

Autonomous vehicles are already on the streets in some states that have explicitly legalized testing.

Legacy carmakers are making major pushes into self-driving technology, including testing on contained courses and road tests.

They’re also competing with Silicon Valley. Companies like Google’s Waymo and Uber have made headway — and headlines — by testing their self-driving vehicles in public. Tesla, too, is testing fully automated vehicles, and it’s made its “Autopilot” adaptive cruise control available to customers.

Portland-based Daimler Trucks North America also is testing self-driving semi trucks in Nevada.