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Cities Should Help Bring About the Smart Car, Transportation Tech Leaders Say

Smart, connected, possibly self-driving vehicles are coming — and leaders trying to make them happen say cities can and should serve as accelerators for their development.

As the private sector races to develop self-driving cars and regulators push to connect vehicles to make them safer and more efficient, America’s cities are increasingly becoming literal testing facilities for innovation. 

The need for an urban environment to pilot technologies vying to revolutionize transportation has been well documented: As Google has put self-driving cars on public streets in Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Texas, researchers at the University of Michigan have set up a “fake city” with traffic signals and streets to test out vehicle connection concepts. But during the past two days, leaders trying to pave the way for futuristic vehicle tech have asserted that cities should be doing more than just serving as the physical settings in which new ideas become realities — they should be doing all they can to accelerate those ideas into more concrete formations.

The first step was the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announcing Monday the availability of $50 million in funding for cities to implement high-tech transportation improvement projects revolving around concepts like vehicle-to-infrastructure connections. Next was a daylong conference held Tuesday, Dec. 8, at the Telecommunications Industry Association’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., where government and private-sector leaders discussed the role cities can and should play in helping that kind of technology develop.

Brian Cronin, a team leader in the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, said during the conference that technology has progressed to the point where the adoption of futuristic-sounding technologies like vehicles that flow seamlessly through intersections isn’t too crazy to consider. From a municipal perspective, he said, there isn’t anything stopping public servants from beginning to prepare for the ideas.

"I really don't think there are any hurdles, I think the challenge is, can you do this in two months?" he said.

Some cities have already started moving forward — the U.S. DOT awarded money to Tampa, Fla., and New York City earlier this year to test out programs that connect vehicles to one another, to city-owned infrastructure and to pedestrians that must plot their paths based on car movement. Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, noted his university’s involvement in the testing of 3,000 connected vehicles in Ann Arbor during the past three years.

Even with that many vehicles, Sweatman gave examples of how the program is continually trying to expand. He wants to put 20,000 connected vehicles on the road for testing in southeastern Michigan in the future. And, to build upon the more insular focus the program has had in the past, he said the center is trying to share the information gleaned from those tests with the outside world.

"We do these big deployments like the 3,000 vehicles in Ann Arbor, and then we build our research on top of that — and that way we learn a lot faster," he said during the conference.

Part of the government challenge to building such systems is in finding funding for and installing hard infrastructure — sensors, network connections, test vehicles. but speakers at the conference also noted a need for regulations to help ease the integration of new technologies. For example, one panel discussed the illicit use of GPS jammers in the U.S., which could disrupt attempts to track and direct vehicles.

Part of the problem is finding some sort of value in the implementation of new technology that is attractive enough from a business perspective that somebody is willing to invest in it — a “killer app,” in tech jargon.

Panelists identified many possible applications of connected and autonomous vehicles. There were some obvious ones, like reducing accidents and congestion, and some that could benefit government functions, like infrastructure maintenance. Walton Fehr, a transportation specialist with the U.S. DOT, questioned during a panel discussion whether cars could track variations in height across bridges as they traverse them, then report that information to a central database.

"Could you look at that pattern, develop a pattern for a healthy bridge, and then develop a model of when that bridge is going to reach its catastrophic failure point?" he said during the conference.

Ultimately most agreed that nobody can clearly identify what the next killer app will be for transportation. However, as Daniel Collins of Urban Insights Associates pointed out, the ability to collect more data than ever before means that government could reap benefits from smart transportation that it can’t even imagine yet.

"Now you're looking at rivers of data that will give you insights that you didn't think to ask,” Collins said. “It's not about whether your blue buses ran slower than your red buses. It's not about whether or not this was the right stop on that bus route ... you find out that it's the dollars you spent on gas tank maintenance that made a difference as to whether those buses were on time or they weren't. It's not stuff you ask me about, it's stuff that's in that big giant river of data that several million dollars can allow you to operate. That's where you make operational improvements that can change people's lives."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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