Fully driverless cars could be rolling down Sacramento streets in just more than a year, following a push by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui and state Sen. Richard Pan to gain federal approval for automated-vehicle testing, the three lawmakers announced Thursday.

“It’s about knocking on the doors of all these car companies and saying, ‘We want you here. Come to Sacramento,’” Steinberg said.

The plan, described Thursday at a press conference at the California Automobile Museum, marks the first announcement of immediate business by new Mayor Steinberg. It comes as city officials prepare to file an application for autonomous-vehicle testing to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

At his swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, Steinberg said he wanted Sacramento to become an “industry center” for electric and automated vehicles.

Civic and technology leaders have met multiple times this year to brainstorm ways to put Sacramento on the cutting edge of driverless-car technology. As the capital city writes rules about self-driving cars, state officials and car companies would benefit from taking legislators and regulators on rides, the argument goes.

And autonomous-vehicle testing in Sacramento would allow civic and business leaders to further brand Sacramento as a tech hub.

“This attracts talent to the region, which we are all hopeful for and looking to expand,” said Jim McGrann, CEO of VSP Global.

The federal designation sought by the city of Sacramento would allow it to be one of the first cities to test fully-automated cars. The cars would be tested across the downtown grid and on Highway 5 to Sacramento International Airport.

Unlike driverless vehicle testing efforts already underway by Google and more recently by Uber, this designation would allow for testing of vehicles that don’t include a steering wheel or brake pedals that allow humans to take control at any time.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced plans in November to create a national network of so-called proving grounds where automakers could test self-driving cars, either in enclosed facilities or within urban cores.

Applications to participate in the pilot are due Dec. 19. The federal government expects to select the locations next year and wants on-road testing by January 2018.

Matsui said Sacramento has improved its chances of being selected by the federal government because of support from multiple layers of government and the business community’s push for high-technology jobs.

“The (downtown Sacramento) grid is ready to go, we have a burgeoning innovative ecosystem, and more integrally important, we have the DMV headquarters in our backyard,” Matsui said.

Sacramento may have to overcome a few roadblocks for its vision to succeed. It’s unclear, for example, if the Department of Motor Vehicles is on board with the idea or what influence the agency could yield over the process. A call to the DMV before the press conference was not immediately returned.

The press conference also did not feature representatives from autonomous vehicle manufacturers, and it’s unknown whether they would spring to test cars in Sacramento.

Tensions have persisted for the last couple of years among Google, Uber and lawmakers in Sacramento. In the most recent example, Uber announced on Wednesday that its self-driving cars would begin picking up passengers in its hometown of San Francisco, under a program first launched in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in September.

That announcement drew a reprimand from the state DMV, which said it had not approved a permit for Uber to test its self-driving vehicles in California.

Uber responded that its plan could move forward because technically its cars weren’t autonomous – a driver remains behind the wheel, ready to take control if necessary.

If fully driverless cars are to be tested in Sacramento, the effort would involve navigating a developing web of state and federal regulations on the emerging technology. The federal government released a policy in September that said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would be responsible for ensuring safety of driverless cars. And the state DMV has said it will oversee testing, permitting and licensing of driverless cars.

In the coming weeks, DMV expects to release regulations on self-driving cars — both those with a steering wheel and those without. After those regulations are approved by the state Office of Administrative Law, carmakers could be issued permits to test fully-autonomous vehicles. That testing would occur for one year before manufacturers receive deployment permits, allowing public use.

It’s still unclear, however, if California’s developing timeline would be consistent with the urgency expressed by both car companies and the federal government.

Allen Young, Sacramento Business Journal, December 15, 2016

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