DOT Smart City Challenge Finalists Propose Self-Driving Vehicles, Smartphone Apps and More

The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced seven finalists for its Smart City Challenge, which comes with a $50 million prize.

The U.S. Department of Transportation saw so many applications it liked for its Smart City Challenge that it couldn’t pick just five. So on March 12 at the South by Southwest festival held in Austin, Texas, the department announced seven finalist cities that will vie for $50 million in project funding and access to a suite of transportation-related technology.

The finalists, which will receive $100,000 each to refine their ideas, are Austin; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

“After an overwhelming response — 78 applications total — we chose to select seven finalists instead of five because of their outstanding potential to transform the future of urban transportation,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

Some of the finalists have released details of their plans.

Columbus outlined a plan to build a “Smart City Program Office” bringing together the city, the Central Ohio Transit Authority, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, the state Department of Transportation, Ohio State University and representatives from private industry. According to the statement, the office would:

  • work to deploy autonomous vehicles for a pilot project connecting citizens with public transit;
  • deploy smart intersections, implement broadband connectivity and enhance traveler information along a bus rapid transit corridor;
  • develop a smart phone application giving truck and freight drivers access to real-time traffic information and routing;
  • craft another application for visitors to the city, which would offer information about traffic, parking and transit options;
  • work to build up personal transit offerings for people in the Linden neighborhood;
  • expand smart grid projects already in place to more parts of the city; and
  • add more electric vehicle charging stations, switching municipal fleet vehicles to compressed natural gas and researching electric vehicles as an option for the city fleet.
Pittsburgh’s statement outlined a vision built on existing partnerships with Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. While the press release didn’t go into many specifics, it laid out a broad plan for “adaptive transportation systems” that would remain useful even as technology evolves in the coming years. With an open platform, the statement said, the city would create new uses for different modes of transportation, improve safety information and boost mobility options for underserved neighborhoods.

One technology in particular the city pointed to was “smart spines,” which would use sensor data and controls to compile information on Pittsburgh’s larger transportation corridors.

Portland’s proposal describes a concept called “Ubiquitous Mobility for Portland," shortened to UB Mobile PDX. A central component of the concept is the launching of a marketplace for mobility that will take in data from a transportation-connected Internet of Things, and allow users to buy and sell mobility. With an option to aggregate payments, users in the marketplace would be able to choose multiple methods of transportation in one place.

That marketplace will connect with an open data cloud that will gather input from the Internet of Things, including smart phones and a growing number of devices plugged into vehicles’ computers.

The city would also launch pilot projects for both autonomous and connected vehicles, integrated with efforts to add collision avoidance systems to buses. The autonomous vehicle pilots would likely involve higher education campuses.

On top of it all, the city would start implementing smart grid projects for its electricity system as it worked to install more electric vehicle chargers across Portland.

Though Austin and Kansas City did not release press statements about their plans, local reporting has given some insight into what those cities plan to do. Austin’s plans include expanding its traffic monitoring capabilities from a citywide basis to a regional one, and using that information to help manage traffic flows after collisions. Kansas City’s plans include adding a new bus line, connecting public transit to Wi-Fi, expanding a bike sharing program and crafting autonomous vehicle regulations

The DOT will announce the winner in June. Since the competition's announcement in December, the prize has grown from $40 million to include another $10 million earmarked for electric vehicle programs from the investment firm Vulcan, access to a bus driver alert system from Mobileye, a project planning platform from Autodesk, wireless communication modules to allow vehicles to communicate with each other from NXP, and $1 million in credits for Amazon’s cloud and professional services.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. on March 14, 2016, to include details about Portland, Ore.'s Smart City proposal.


Smart Cities
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.