Self-driving cars are headed to their biggest stage yet: Washington DC.
On Monday, Ford announced a partnership with the city’s government to begin testing self-driving cars in early 2019. Ford’s self-driving car startup, Argo.AI, has already begun mapping the city. So far, self-driving cars have been tested mainly in suburbs and smaller cities.
Ford officials told CNN Business they were drawn to Washington DC because of its progressive mayor and a young population, which is likely to embrace new technologies such as autonomous vehicles. DC has been one of the earliest cities to embrace other transportation inventions such as dockless e-bikes and scooters.
Ford plans to launch a self-driving ride service in 2021, and Washington DC will be its second launch city after Miami, where Ford is already testing.
The DC government embraced Ford because it promised to operate throughout the entire city, rather than catering to wealthy neighborhoods. Ford also agreed to partner with a workforce training center in an impoverished part of the city to help hire new test drivers to monitor the cars. Ford also said it will train residents for auto technician careers with a local non-profit.
Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner told CNN Business the city isn’t concerned about job displacement.
“With new technology, there’s always new opportunities for job diversification and job growth. If we’re able through this pilot to create a new pipeline for District residents to fill these new jobs, we’re happy about that,” Kenner said.
But DC will prove a serious challenge for Ford’s vehicles. Driving in cities is significantly harder than suburbs or highways. The environment is more complex because of pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders.
In 2017, Ford’s rival GM announced similar plans to test self-driving vehicles in Manhattan, but the program has yet to launch. New York city Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo feuded over the project shortly after it was announced. A spokesman from Cruise, GM’s self-driving arm, declined to comment.
The District of Columbia is effectively a city, county and state all in one, which means it faces fewer layers of regulations and potential hurdles ahead of launch.
Kenner said the city was convinced the vehicles would operate safely. Ford’s protocol calls for self-driving vehicles to have a test driver behind the wheel, and a colleague in the passenger seat.
Test drivers for self-driving cars came into the spotlight this March when a self-driving Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. Uber only required a single human in its vehicles, and the driver wasn’t watching the road.
The crash raised new concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles. However, the District of Columbia will not require Ford to report when its vehicles are in crashes.
For residents and tourists eager to ride in a self-driving vehicles, they’ll have to be patient. Ford isn’t planning to offer any rides before the ride hailing service launches in 2021.
“We’re not assuming autonomous vehicles are going to take over or anything,” Sherif Marakby, Ford’s president of autonomous vehicles said. “We need to understand, where do [autonomous vehicles] fit? Hopefully they’ll fit someplace. We believe they will.”