Yuma is setting the groundwork for autonomous vehicles with its “smart city” initiative. With driverless technology already being tested in parts of the state, the city has been preparing for the infrastructure needed so these self-driving cars and trucks can operate safely.

“Autonomous vehicles are already here,” said Ricky Rinehart, the city’s director of strategic initiatives. He noted that cars today are already networked and connected to the internet and GPS.

Rinehart compared the transition to self-driving cars “to the change which took place when cars replaced horses and buggies in the early 20th century.”

Although a driverless car is a “marvel of modern engineering and science,” Rinehart pointed out that local officials and citizens must ask themselves an important question: “How many of us, who may be first in line to purchase an automated vehicle, have given any thought to one critical question: Is the infrastructure ready for these cars?”

The City of Yuma hosted a seminar titled “Autonomous Vehicles 101: Education for Yuma and Surrounding Communities” on Wednesday, with national, state and local experts speaking on the subject. The City Hall event was also sponsored by Yuma County, the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation and the Yuma Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Rinehart said he was “glad” the City Council had the foresight to enter into an agreement with anyCOMM Holdings that will allow Yuma to have this technology.

Yuma entered into a 25-year contract with anyCOMM, making it a test site for “smart city” technology, in August 2016. The firm initially committed to a $10 million investment in hardware and software associated with the deployment of the technology, including the installation of the interconnected nodes on streetlights and upgrading and maintaining of the wi-fi and fiber, at no cost to the city.

The anyCOMM investment is now at $16 million due to the tariffs being imposed on China, where the tech company’s subassemblies are done, Rinehart said.

The “smart city” nodes will have the ability to record video and audio; provide lighting control and a citywide gigabit wireless mesh network; and allow cellular carriers to use the network to extend their service coverage and network capacity.

“Why should we act now rather than wait to see how quickly AVs are adopted?” Rinehart asked. “Because planning and infrastructure investment decisions that are being made today will determine the development of our cities and counties for decades to come. If we anticipate an AV future today, we can avoid wasting taxpayers’ money on investments that may soon prove obsolete, or worse, frustrate the realization of AV benefits.”

As a local government, Rinehart added, the city should ensure that connectivity plans are either in place or being adopted to support the types of vehicle-to-vehicle or other communications that autonomous cars will need.

Some of the “simpler requirements” the city can do now include clear lane markings and signs that are clear and unobstructed. As first steps, City Engineer Jeff Kramer explained, the city is upgrading to 6-inch pavement lane markings from the current 4-inch, which means an increased paint use. The city’s Public Works Department must also ensure that signs are not hidden by brush overgrowth or objects, such as bus shelters.

Things to consider include the capability of vehicles to “talk” to traffic systems and the number of parking needed, since fewer people will drive to locations and instead will be dropped off by “robotaxis.”

The city will likely have to mull curb policies to regulate ride-hailing vehicles pulling over to curbs and possibly holding up traffic, much like airports.

As for other future moves, Rinehart noted, “Our citizens will drive the market and it’s a rush to bring this technology forward. As local leaders, it’s our job to get out in front of these challenges as it pertains to autonomous vehicles and bring forth solutions to meet head on what lies ahead.”

Paul Ward, executive director of the Yuma Metropolitan Planning Organization, acknowledged the need to include autonomous vehicles in regional transportation planning.

Dale Neef, economics and technology writer and strategic consultant, agreed that Yuma’s “smart city approach sets the communications foundation for AVs.”

The key is connectivity and small towns and rural areas need to “fight for their corner” or be initially excluded, he added.

The development of 5G “superfast” broadband and a revolution in sensors is the basis for autonomous vehicles, which is what anyCOMM is bringing to Yuma, he noted.

The entire seminar is available on-demand at www.yumaaz.gov.

Editor’s note: More information on autonomous vehicles provided at the seminar will be part of a second story to be published next week.

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