Driving change: Are cities ready for robot cars?

Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the former mayor of New York, opened the CityLab conference at the Intercontinental on Monday. The artistic stage is a “living stage” of moss by Plant The Future in Wynwood.
Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the former mayor of New York, opened the CityLab conference at the Intercontinental on Monday. The artistic stage is a “living stage” of moss by Plant The Future in Wynwood.

America may be in the throes of Election 2016, but organizers of a global conference taking place in Miami believe it is cities and their inhabitants that are most often in the best position to drive massive change and innovation.

Consider driverless cars. In a limited way, they are already here, on the streets of San Francisco, Pittsburgh and other cities; road testing is planned for Miami-Dade, too. But how cities plan now for the transition to self-driving cars could determine whether the technology will be mainstream with massive benefits for the economy, public transit and the health of the planet, or primarily bring convenience to the privileged few.

“We learned the hard way that if cities are built for cars instead of people, people suffer,” Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and former mayor of New York City, told the crowd of several hundred people attending the CityLab conference at the Intercontinental Miami on Monday. And the stakes are huge: In New York City alone, the economic toll of congestion is $13 billion in higher prices and lost productivity annually, Bloomberg said.

To smooth the transition, Bloomberg said technology companies need to become players in the political space. The argument that tech companies are improving lives and cities and governments need to fall in line just doesn’t play in the real world, Bloomberg said. Airbnb is already paying the price in New York.

“This is the battle of the century. There will be more technology introduced in the next five years than all the technology from Thomas Edison to today,” said Bloomberg. “Autonomous cars are one of the most important changes cities will need to deal with. ... Let it not be a missed opportunity for our cities and our planet. [Self-driving cars] can improve lives in ways we can not even understand today.”

Aspen Institute, The Atlantic and Bloomberg Philanthropies convened CityLab: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges, their fourth annual summit on the ideas to transform metro centers around the world. On the agenda are issues including driverless cars, public transit, the income divide, sea level rise, government transparency and the Zika outbreak. Previous CityLab summits were held in New York, Los Angeles and London.

Attending the conference were 39 mayors — including mayors from Miami, Miami Beach and Orlando — along with artists, academics, funders and other public and private sector leaders from 35 countries, focused on identifying and sharing effective urban solutions.

Besides facing bureaucratic infrastructure and monetization issues around robot cars, cities will be dealing with swaths of industries left obsolete and drivers left jobless, lost revenue from parking charges and traffic tickets, and new uses for massive parking lots, to name a few. In Los Angeles, for instance, the city owns 130 parking lots and derives $160 million in income from parking citations alone, said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the city of Los Angeles Department of Transportation. If it ultimately all works according to plan, those lots would be empty and citations would be obsolete; driverless cars could be used for public transportation. Yet driverless cars might also bring advances in safety.

More than 90 percent of driving accidents are caused by human recklessness, said Edward Humes, author of the book “Door to Door,” who participated in a panel about the topic. In the U.S., that toll was about 38,000 deaths and 2.5 million hospitalizations last year. “It’s horrific.”

The cultural shift away from a car-crazed society cannot be understated either, although speakers at the conference said millennials are already making the shift to a less car-dependent lifestyle. “Millennials see driving as a distraction to their texting,” quipped Reynolds.

Reynolds said freight companies will likely be the early adopters of the technology. Los Angeles is developing a strategy and protocol for the transition. She hopes it will result in a public model where driverless technology is widely used for public transit, along with high-speed rail and other mass transportation. She believes deploying innovative strategies in key cities such as L.A. could pave the way for other urban centers.

General Motors is using its electric Bolt platform for its driverless models, said Mike Ableson, vice president of global strategy for General Motors. “We have to design a lot of redundancies in the system, layered onto cybersecurity redundancies, to do truly safe driverless vehicles,” he said. “We are working with Lyft on how to deploy our autonomous Bolts in Lyft’s ride-sharing cities,” including Miami.

Ableson said autonomous vehicles will be particularly useful for transporting the elderly and the disabled. Consumers will be able to get used to the cars in ride-hailing services, and that’s one reason GM would like to roll them out with Lyft first.

The Miami hot topic of Zika was also on the day’s agenda. Jose Gomez-Marquez was showing a do-it-yourself Zika diagnostic test, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, that gets testing to rural communities faster and more efficiently than the current scenario, said Gomez-Marquez, who directs MIT’s Little Devices Lab. MIT hopes to roll out the test kits in Latin America by the end of this year, he said.

Technology also plays a role in a new Zika “smart crowdsourcing” project by the InterAmerican Bank’s GovLab and the Argentine government aimed at devising and sharing potential solutions for the Zika outbreak. The project is bringing together leaders from four Latin American governments with dozens of experts from academia, technology and data analysis, government and industry, to turn the good ideas into concrete plans.

“The Ministry of Health lacks some tools to do things fast,” said Rudi Borrmann, undersecretary of public innovation and open government for Argentina. “By bringing to the table new people and new ideas, we can gather information really fast and attack the problem. This model can be applied to many challenges.”

“Nobody has said no to participating and now we are seeing everyone saying how can we continue to help,” said Beth Simone Noveck, director of The GovLab.

CityLab also featured interactive showcases of tech companies and startups from various cities. An exhibition area called CityLab Makers featured artisans from Miami, Boston, Cuba, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru showcasing solutions for agriculture, design, health and other social innovation.

CityLab Makers was a project of Miami’s Mano nonprofit that develops maker education programs and events including the Maker Faire in Miami. Mano has been expanding its focus throughout the Americas; one of its latest projects was 10x10KCuba, a contest offering funding and mentorship for Cuban entrepreneurs, said Ric Herrero, founder of Mano.

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg.