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In the near future Lincoln could have 700 driverless vans and cars carting children to school, taking grandma to the doctor or the grocery store, bringing professors from their homes to the university.

That’s the plan if Lincoln beats out 76 other mid-sized cities to win the Smart City Challenge, and with it, $40 million from the Department of Transportation and $10 million from Vulcan Philanthropy.

In just three years Lincoln would create a futuristic mass transit system using 50 electric-powered, driverless shuttles, each seating eight to 12 passengers, in the downtown area and 650 driverless passenger cars across town.

The goal would be to reduce vehicle trips citywide by 20 percent by convincing Lincoln residents to use the new transit system, accessible through an app on your smartphone.

The average person spends more than $500 a month on car expenses, including fuel and maintenance. "What if we could provide this service?" asked David Young, the city's fiber infrastructure manager, during a presentation to the City Council. 

An efficient mass transit system would reduce the number of vehicles, eliminating the need to widen some streets. "You could put the money into maintenance (of streets). That is where the industry is going," Young said.

Public Works staff are optimistic Lincoln has a chance in the grant competition. The city already has most of the fiber in place necessary to handle driverless cars. And Allo Communications will put in the rest as it offers high-speed Internet service to every home and business over the next three years as part of its franchise agreement.

The city would also gather data, offer transportation technology training through the public schools and put in sites for charging electric vehicles as part of the three-year grant.

This would be an "unprecedented demonstration project that can be documented and later applied to other mid-sized cities," according to Lincoln's grant application.  

"This initiative will produce citizen and industry buy-in, and will change the transportation landscape in Lincoln and elsewhere, forever." 

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Lest folks think a driverless transportation system is too far-fetched, city staff point to articles that predict a large number of self-driving cars will be on the road by 2019 with mass production in the early 2020s.

This would not be the first-time technology quickly changed the landscape, based on research by Thomas Shafer, acting director of Public Works and Utilities.

In 1900, 4,192 cars were sold in the U.S. By 1912 that number had risen to 356,000. In 1912, traffic counts in New York showed more cars than horses for the first time.

Finalists for the $50 million grant will be announced in mid-March. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.



Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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