Mayor Megan Barry wants to see what driverless cars can do to ease Nashville’s traffic woes — and help the city win a $40 million federal grant.
Barry said Thursday that she wants to explore the potential benefits of the self-driving, automated technology that everyone from Google to General Motors is racing to invest in, develop and prove street-worthy.
Traffic congestion, whether downtown or on the highways, poses arguably the strongest threat to stifle Nashville’s surging growth — in which the city has seized a national profile fueled by sterling job gains and an influx of people moving to the region. Among many uses, the federal grant money could help back a pilot program to test self-driving cars.
Barry spoke at Thursday’s Nashville Business Breakfast, at Lipscomb University. It was her 104th day in office. Her predecessor, Mayor Karl Dean, failed in his bid to create the Amp, a bus rapid-transit route running through downtown and on West End Avenue, into Belle Meade.
Barry said she anticipates incorporating driverless cars as one focal point in the city’s upcoming pitch for $40 million of federal funding, to be awarded to one mid-sized city experiencing rapid population growth (check) and thus a more burdensome strain on its roads and highways (check).
“That’s the new technology and I want to make sure we look at it,” Barry told me after her speech. “We’ll never be able to make up for what we didn’t do all these years with mass transit, so we’ve got to push ahead.”
“It’s conceivable our growth could stall” if the city fails to tackle transit and transportation issues, Barry said.
“The way forward is to find quick solutions where we already have the infrastructure. We’re all looking for those quick wins,” Barry said (such as allowing busses to use the shoulders of the interstate). “Ultimately, I want to have a lot of conversations about (driverless) cars. We’re talking with the federal government to see how much money we could get to look at that.”
The grant application is due Feb. 4, after which the federal government will pick a winning city. In an email, a spokesman for Barry stressed that city officials are still “early on in the research and discussion phase of seeing how automated vehicle and other technologies could be incorporated into our application.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation says its $40 million award will go to the mid-sized city that can best demonstrate how data and technology can be used to “reduce congestion, keep travelers safe, protect the environment, respond to climate change, connect underserved communities, and support economy vitality.”
“In the application, cities must put forth bold, data-driven ideas to improve livability by making transportation safer, easier, and more reliable,” the government says.
Turner had said he hoped Metro would earnestly pursue the use of driverless cars when weighing the bigger picture of how to alleviate Nashville’s traffic congestion.
Turner also said it would be a chance to capitalize on the arrival of Google to Nashville. The company is opening office and retail operations in the Gulch as its contractors begin installing Google’s high-powered Internet fiber-optic network. Turner said he sees it as a safer alternative to drivers distracted by text messages or perhaps driving under the influence.
“I’m excited we have a leader of the city who’s willing to look at possible alternative solutions,” Turner told me. “When you look at the companies behind this technology, it’s people who have very much of an economic interest in helping to solve this. When you get that kind of horsepower behind something, exciting solutions can present themselves.”
Turner said he could see an experiment where Nashville designates an area of town, maybe its central business district, and say that certain lanes or roads are for driverless cars only — “to see if it gets the buy-in.” Turner said driverless cars are one part of a viable approach to mass transit, but he doesn’t see them as an end-all salve.
“Nashville is a progressive city and we’re at an inflection point with mass transportation. We’re kind of a blank slate, in that we don’t have a bunch of infrastructure like light rail,” Turner said. “This is a good point for us to spend time to make sure we’re pursuing the best possible solution.”