Political Insider

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Getting ready for metro Atlanta's next transportation revolution

Please seal this column in an envelope and give it a place on a back shelf for the next 20 years.

On Nov. 19, 2037, open the envelope. If the content doesn’t hold up, feel free to hunt me down and deliver a swift kick to my posterior. Should you find me dead or blissfully insensible, look for Eric Tanenblatt instead. Because what follows is mostly his fault.

We are on the cusp of a long-fought revolution in Georgia. If all goes as planned come January, the Republican leadership of the state Capitol will endorse the concept of expanded commuter rail in metro Atlanta — perhaps, for the first time, by putting money behind the idea.

Tanenblatt will be the killjoy at whatever celebration that follows. For he has become the discomfiting prophet of metro Atlanta’s next future — built around autonomous, electric vehicles.

Already, he’s telling this state’s business and political elite that, even though we have barely embarked on the current transportation revolution, the sequel has already begun. And Georgia is woefully behind, he contends.

“We have automobile manufacturers that have a presence in Georgia. We can’t just sit back and wait because we’ve got other things on our plate. That’s my message to lawmakers,” he said over coffee and pie this week. He had the coffee. I had the pie.

He had arrived by electric car, of course. A Tesla.

Tanenblatt first came on the scene during the Republican uprising in Georgia. He was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff. He still dabbles in politics, but he is now attached to Dentons, the mammoth law and consulting firm in Atlanta.

He and his team have become specialists in helping “disruptive” new businesses navigate the unseen land mines laid by traditionalists. For Uber, it has been the opposition of taxi companies. For Tesla and its direct-to-consumer sales philosophy, political push-back can often be traced to traditional auto dealerships.

For Tanenblatt, driverless cars are the natural next step, followed by pilotless vehicles that fly. He has joined the ranks of those who think that there are American children born today who will never need a driver’s license. Or own a car.

Fleets of driverless cars will pick up passengers ordered up on a cell phone, making parking lots and multi-storied parking garages obsolete. Jobs of all kinds could disappear – think of those that surround the trucking industry alone. On the other hand, insurance rates would drop significantly, given the removal of human error. (He does not, by the way, think autonomous vehicles will negate the need for commuter rail in metro Atlanta.)

“This stuff is moving so fast. All the major automotive manufacturers — all are focused on this, on electric and autonomy,” Tanenblatt said.

The two are linked. Electric first, then autonomy.

This summer, Volvo became the first automaker to declare a formal shift away from internal combustion engines. By 2019, all its vehicles will be either electric or hybrids.

Last week, General Motors announced it would introduce 18 models of electric vehicles over the next five years. On Thursday, Volkswagen and local partners announced they would invest $11.8 billion in the manufacturing of electric and hybrid cars in China, already the world’s largest auto market, before 2025.

In identifying Georgia land mines besetting a future of autonomous vehicles, Tanenblatt points to the 2015 repeal of a $5,000 tax credit on the sale of electric vehicles. At one point, Georgia was a distant No. 2, behind California, in the number of electric vehicles on the road.

That same year, realizing that a gasoline tax hike intended to repair the state’s roads and bridges didn’t touch electric car owners, lawmakers added a $200-a-year fee for electric car owners.

Sales of electric vehicles in Georgia immediately plummeted.

“They were so focused on trying to come up with a transportation funding mechanism that they didn’t think of the unintended consequences and look ahead,” Tanenblatt said. “We’re going to have to revisit it.”

That’s not likely to happen next year, as Republicans in key legislative positions tee up their campaigns for governor and other statewide spots.

Signal-sending is Tanenblatt’s concern, rather than building an immediate, critical mass of electric car owners. In a rapidly innovating area of technology, field tests are the entry point.

In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., Waymo, a self-driving car company created by Google, is testing its vehicles on local streets in a 100-square-mile area approved by local officials.

A few minor projects have sprouted up here and there in metro Atlanta, but without coordination or major investment. “We are so behind the curve – no one’s even looking at us, because we’ve put in place a policy that doesn’t show that we’re very forward thinking,” Tanenblatt said.

Tanenblatt has approached both Mary Norwood and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the two candidates in the runoff for mayor of Atlanta, on the topic. (Bottoms has mentioned autonomous vehicles in her policy statements.)

Attention from statewide officialdom has been less forthcoming. Among candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Tanenblatt said he has received only one inquiry — from Geoff Duncan, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

“It’s hard for people to get their arms around it. The business community needs to do some educating,” Tanenblatt said.

Testing is mainly about research, the creation of real-life situations that can be recognized, analyzed and solved by artificial intelligence. But it is also about building public acceptance for the shift.

Tanenblatt has pitched different locales for pilot projects. His most ambitious may be the Atlanta BeltLine, which will ultimately feature a 22-mile loop of light rail.

Tanenblatt said Brian McGowan, the new president and CEO of the BeltLine, has heard his spiel. “Why spend all this time focusing on light rail around the BeltLine? Why not do autonomous shuttles? They already exist. They’re running in France right now,” Tanenblatt said. “He’s actually looking at it.”

So maybe that’s the future, and maybe it isn’t. You can tell me on Nov. 19, 2037. If you have a decent sense of irony, you’ll arrive by driverless car.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.