Tech Leaders, Policymakers Convene at Chamber of Commerce

September 30, 2016

“We’re in the fourth industrial revolution. . . Yet we have bureaucracies that still operate with DOS prompts… we need to change that.” -Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC).

tecnation1Too often, tech-focused events focus on the oohs and ahhs of innovation. Keynote speakers and panelists boast of transforming the mundane to the sublime, or the tedious to the automated – yet they miss the essence of innovation: to solve real, human problems.

The Chamber of Commerce’s marquee tech policy forum, TecNation, brought a wide variety of policy wonks, government leaders, and tech leaders together to discuss tech solutions for the modern age.

This event was a showcase for innovation in smart cities, big data, and transportation technology – but it was also a narrative about how technology can be harnessed to solve problems and improve the lives of others.


“A true smart city does not leave people behind.” -Ashley Hand, Co-Founder of CityFi

CityFi helps city leaders and their communities find solutions for their most pressing problems in transportation, data analysis, equitable development, public-private partnerships, and other issues facing smart cities.

Among others, it has helped the City of Los Angeles to develop its transportation technology strategy to increase sustainability, safety, and data sharing.

“How do we redefine the city to address needs of the aging population, and address younger populations too?”

Showing two Scientific American covers published 100 years apart, Hand conveyed the importance of understanding our cities: how do we get around them? Where do we live? Who do we interact with?

Cities need to be able to use critical data about how their residents use transportation options, where they choose to live, how much space is lost to parking, and all of the other data that can help us hear the heartbeats of our cities.

It is in this space – the intersection of citizen squeamishness and wonky eagerness for data sharing – that Hand is most comfortable.

“We need a new social contract for sharing information” to help cities make informed decisions, she declared. By bringing data analysts into government and harnessing the converging fields of data analysis, automation, and autonomous vehicles, cities could experience another major transformation.

This is CityFi’s modus operandi – the intrepid policy entrepreneurs have a portfolio spanning the United States (and even reaching Astana, Kazakhstan) that details how cities can use information about transit use to optimize services, reduce congestion, and initiate mutually-beneficial public-private partnerships.

Chauffeurs and Guardian Angels

“More than 35,000 Americans lost their lives in car accidents in 2015 . . . equal to two jumbo jets falling out of the sky every week. If we had that, there’d be hell to pay.” –Hilary Cain, Director, Technology and Innovation Policy, Toyota

To deliver on their promise of reducing the senseless loss of lives to car collisions, autonomous vehicles must rely upon much more than simply following a set of preprogrammed algorithms and logic paths.

While engineers are capable of programming autonomous vehicles to take an unprotected left turn or yield to another vehicle at a stop sign, the real challenges of driving are much more than preparing a self-driving car to obey the rules of the road.

On a single trip, a driver can interact with construction work blocking part of a lane, police officers directing traffic, pedestrians jaywalking, and a cyclist running a red light. A human driver that has personal autonomy and is not bound to specifically programmed procedures can typically navigate these situations with ease – given they are paying attention, obeying verbal instructions, reading body language, and fully considering the innumerable data points around them and situations that may immediately change.

Autonomous vehicles, in other words, must be autonomous drivers.

Speaking on a panel that covered artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, Cain made the argument that AI is a critical component for autonomous vehicles.

She uses an example of bringing every person in Washington into the same room to write down every possible scenario that a car might encounter on the road, and then programming the car to deal with it.

“We would still miss something,” Cain says, “and this is why AI is important – it can jump in when the car isn’t explicitly programmed to handle something.”


Recognizing the current limitations of autonomous vehicles, she outlined the two types of autonomous vehicles Toyota is considering for development:

  1. Chauffeur mode – A fully autonomous (AV4/5) vehicle that does not need human intervention at all, and possibly does not even allow humans to drive. This would displace many livery and freight drivers but would expand mobility options for the entire population.
  2. Guardian Angel mode – A semi-autonomous vehicle (AV3) that operates using the same AI while allowing people to drive, but steps in only to guarantee safety and prevent collisions. This would not yield the same mobility benefits for people with disabilities, children, and the elderly – but at the same time it would not displace taxi or truck operators.

The most surprising part: “We’ll let the market decide where this is all going to work out.”

While most players in the autonomous vehicle field have firmly stated the foreseeable endpoint for their technology – whether AV3 or AV4/5 – the wait-and-see approach by Toyota suggested caution and restraint in the face of hungry tech interlopers in the auto industry.

Issa and Lyft Discuss Sharing

“Regulation is something that’s inherently fixed in time. Innovation is the opposite.” –Joe Okpaku, Vice President of Government Relations, Lyft

During the final session, Joe Okpaku appeared on the same panel as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Co-Chair of the Sharing Economy Caucus, to discuss how this new market paradigm has shifted the nature of work and transportation in the 21st century.

Rep. Issa presented a narrative of technology that allows citizens to break free of government regulations – and also eliminate the barriers to market entry that typically enable regulatory capture.

Emphasizing that he and the caucus co-chair, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), want to maximize taxpayer dollars through responsible tech solutions, Issa pointed to Lyft as an example of the changing regulatory and labor landscapes:

“We’re a country that was build over the last 50 years with the concept of full-time jobs. This is transforming, with college students that now have three flexible sharing economy jobs.”

Issa predicted the House would approve a bill that night allowing federal workers to use transit benefits through transportation network companies (TNCs) while DC’s metro system undergoes intensive repairs – however, the bill did not reach the floor.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not share the tech-enabled cringe of the day:

“In one of our polls, we found that millennials were more likely to correctly identify Pikachu than Joe Biden,” -Kyle Dropp, Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer of Morning Consult.

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