L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti: We Will Be the First City to Do Autonomous Vehicles Right

He says Angelenos "might not own cars" in as soon as a decade.

Image Melanie Leigh Wilbur
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks at The Atlantic's CityLab 2014 summit. (Melanie Leigh Wilbur)

It's no secret that Eric Garcetti has a thing for autonomous vehicles. At a conference last winter, L.A.'s self-proclaimed "tech mayor" shared his dream of having an entire neighborhood devoted to whirring, driverless machines.

Today at The Atlantic's CityLab 2014 summit in downtown Los Angeles he doubled down on that vision, saying that L.A. "could be the first place really in an urban center where we have autonomous vehicles that are able to be ordered up [like] a car service, right away in a real neighborhood, not just in a protected area."

Garcetti's future-gazing came in the context of the city's ongoing, massive expansion of its transit system. A slew of new rail lines are in the works, and beleaguered air travelers are finally getting a cheap and direct conduit to LAX. The mayor said it was not enough to ponder the current construction projects, and not even what comes next, which he said might be more bus rapid transit lanes. Garcetti's interested in what Michael Lewis might call the new, new thing, which he painted as inevitable as the rising of the sun.

“While we're building out this rail network, we simultaneously should be looking at, I think, bus rapid transit lanes, not because BRTs are [good]of course they've been proven successfulbut because autonomous vehicles are going to be here," he said. "How do you spend billions of dollars on fixed rail, when we might not own cars in this city in a decade or a decade and a half?"

Such bus lanes could come in handy when the age of autonomy arrives, he added. "A bus lane today, may be a bus and an autonomous vehicle lane tomorrow."

That's not empty talk: Garcetti says the city is working with UCLA to develop a neighborhood for driverless vehicles, perhaps around the university in Westwood. He's also working on something secretive-sounding with the brains at Xerox—"kind of like the Skunk Works guys who brought us the mouse and everything else"—to manage such a driverless network, as well as more traditional manned vehicles from bus down to bicycle.

The basic idea is that commuters would be allowed to purchase a dollar amount of transit (say, $500 a month) and then use their phones or computers to order transit in the way they might a pizza. Here's Garcetti's explanation of what this platform might involve:

"Now through a single app, I could order a taxi, an Uber, a Lyft, a Sidecar; I could get on the bus, I could get on the rail, I could take out a shared bike, I could get a shared car like a Zipcar or something like that. And you never have to stress out anymore about how you're going to get some place. You know you have the options.... And maybe the city makes a small transaction fee off of that, or MTA, so it's actually in our interest to build that and then share that open-source again with the rest of the world."

The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies are hosting "CityLab 2014: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges," in Los Angeles on September 29 & 30. Find CityLab.com's full coverage here.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.