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Merced County in California experienced an economic windfall at the end of 2013 when Google signed leases valued at $456,000 to use the county’s Castle Commerce Center. Since then, Google has been busy testing its self-driving car program in and around the former Air Force base. Google spokeswoman Katelin Jabbari told the Merced Sun-Star in 2014 that the innovation-leading company has already taken its cars around Lake Tahoe and through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

We’re continuing to develop and refine the technology in a variety of environments, including closed tracks where we can set up challenging courses and obstacles—and the space available to us at Castle is very helpful for that.

Katelin Jabbari, Google

Onvia’s Spending Forecast Center revealed that the Merced County Board views the partnership as positive for the local economy. They stated the following in the county’s Fiscal Year 2014-2015 proposed budget, “These agreements show that Merced County is beginning to become uniquely positioned to accommodate a wide-range of business endeavors.”

Getting Ahead of the Autonomous Car

Like Merced County, government agencies across the U.S. hope to become the hub of the ground-breaking self-driving vehicles industry.

As identified in Onvia’s Project Center, the Florida Department of Transportation announced in August 2014 that the agency is “blazing the trail for the integration of automated vehicles into existing and future transportation” with pilot and research projects, and open dialog about the innovations.

The agency believes that autonomous vehicles could potentially decrease traffic crashes and congestion. The department issued an RFP for a three-year, $5 million consulting contract to begin plans for infrastructure needs related to autonomous vehicles.

Like the Florida DOT, state and local agencies across the country appear to be escalating plans related to the advent of the self-driving car:

 
The city approved $150,000 for a strategic “Transfort” plan update. The City Manager’s Recommended Biannual Budget for 2015-2016 notes that transportation is changing so quickly with disruptive innovations such as real-time transit arrival information and driverless vehicles; this plan would allow Transfort to evaluate and incorporate these innovative strategies to become efficient and responsive to community needs.
 
 
The city foresees the future benefits of the autonomous vehicle and the needs to plan for it. City officials say the city’s buses and solid-waste vehicles could one day be driverless. “It would be unwise to disregard the operational efficiencies and cost savings that new technology will bring to taxpayers,” according to the Proposed Annual Budget for Fiscal Year 2015-2016.
 

States Are in the Early Policy-Making Days for Driver-Less Vehicles

A handful of states are beginning to tackle the controversial policy aspects of self-driving cars. These six states (California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota and Tennessee) and the District of Columbia have autonomous vehicle legislation. Arizona’s governor also issued an executive order regarding the innovative vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Self-driving car legislation often deals with liability, safety standards, authorization to drive the vehicles, and permitting organizations to test them.

Other states are choosing to take a slower, more hands-off approach. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia has not enacted any laws specific to self-driving cars; instead they’ve opted to consider them the same as regular cars.

“When self-driving cars begin zipping through Northern Virginia this year, they won’t need any special registration, and the testers sitting behind the wheel won’t need a special license,” according to the Washington Post in August 2014. Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor whose research helped advance that interpretation explains in the article, “Automated vehicles are probably legal. That is the default assumption.”

With leaders in innovation like Google leading the charge, it’s safe to assume that self-driving vehicles will be seen on city streets and highways across the country soon. Public officials see the economic benefits of innovation happening in their backyard are beginning to prep for their arrival. Government contractors seeking out infrastructure design, construction, consulting and even IT contracts should take note of this trend and view it as a catalyst for new government business opportunities in the coming years.