Washington will be a world leader for self-driving cars and electric ferries, governor predicts

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at the Alliance of Angels event in Seattle on Wednesday. (GeekWire photo / John Cook)

The future of transportation will be in Seattle.

That’s a proclamation Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made at an event Wednesday evening celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Alliance of Angels investment group.

Speaking to leaders from the technology, political, business, and other industries, Inslee predicted that Seattle will be home to the first electric ferries in America and a hub for autonomous vehicle development.

“We are going to be the future of the electrification of the transportation system and the autonomous vehicle center of the U.S.,” Inslee said.

The state, which has the country’s largest ferry system, set aside $600,000 in its 2018 state transportation budget that will go toward researching how to convert ferries from diesel to hybrid electric propulsion, KUOW reported this week.

Torc Robotics’ self-driving car arrived in Seattle last summer. Photo via Torc.

Inslee said there are more than 24 companies working on self-driving technology in the state. The governor last year signed an executive order that encourages self-driving technology testing. Companies approved for self-driving testing in Washington include Navya; NVIDIA; Simple Solutions; Torc Robotics; and Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, which is testing autonomous vehicles around its engineering office in Kirkland, Wash.

“We know that the press wants to write a story that autonomous vehicles will be a disaster,” Inslee said. “I want to write a story that the state of Washington will have more autonomous vehicle entrepreneurs than any place in the U.S.”

Inslee’s “disaster” comment may be a reference to the recent incident in Arizona, where a woman was killed after being hit by one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles. Arizona has become a center for self-driving research thanks to its relaxed regulations, though the state this week ordered Uber to halt its testing after the accident.

“Safety is the top priority, and that’s why Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order on the safe operation and testing of autonomous vehicles,” Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Inslee’s office, told GeekWire earlier this month. “The executive order focuses on safety and protection, it requires certification with the Department of Licensing, proof of financial responsibility, compliance with all laws and regulations, and equipment to bring the vehicle to a safe condition in the event of a system failure.”

The Seattle region could be a leader in autonomous driving software development, though it lacks hardware research found in places like Pittsburgh, where Uber has a large R&D center alongside other companies like Argo and Aurora. Self-driving cars are also commonplace on Pittsburgh’s streets; it’s rare to see one in Seattle today.

Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group published a report in September predicting that Interstate 5 between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., will become entirely dedicated to autonomous vehicles by 2040.

In March of last year, local tech, transportation, and development companies created the ACES Northwest Network to ensure cars that are “automated, connected, electric and shared” are introduced into the Seattle region’s transportation system. Members include INRIX, Nvidia, Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Puget Sound Energy, and others.

In March 2016, leaders from the region’s public and private sectors helped launch Challenge Seattle, a non-profit initiative led by former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire to create a better transportation system in Seattle.