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Knight Foundation to Invest Millions in Community AV Projects

The Knight Foundation will provide more than $5 million across five cities to explore projects involving self-driving cars.

The Knight Foundation is stepping directly into the smart cities and transportation arena with the award of more than $5 million to five cities.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is awarding $5.25 million to Detroit; Long Beach and San Jose, Calif.; Miami; and Pittsburgh. The funding is to be used by each city to develop pilot projects designed to engage residents around self-driving car technologies.

Details are still being worked out, but it's anticipated that the grant will be divided equally among all five cities, said Lilian Coral, director of National Strategy and Technology Innovation at the Knight Foundation.

“We envision projects driven by residents — where the design, planning and delivery, and execution of the project, moves beyond typical in-person ‘town-hall’ meetings or resident surveys,” Coral said.

“The cities have all expressed an interest in using human-centered design, design-thinking, and participatory planning processes that empower residents and enable cities to lead with resident ideas,” she added.

The pilots may harness community engagement by using crowdsourcing platforms like Nextdoor to learn about mobility barriers or where there may be opportunities for autonomous vehicle adoption that would improve the mobility of residents in the area, she said.

“In all of the projects there is an emphasis on outreach to underserved communities. In addition, they all aim to use these projects to develop multi-year conversations in their cities about the future societal impact of autonomous vehicles,” Coral said.

Leaders from the five pilot cities are expected to meet regularly to discuss their findings and “generate insights and lessons for other communities trying to keep up with the increasing pace of testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles,” according to a foundation press release.

Pittsburgh has had a toehold in the autonomous vehicle testing landscape for several years. Uber began testing the technology in 2016 — even though that testing has since been paused. Pittsburgh also hosted the 2018 Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit.

However, it could still be too soon to say what form the city’s pilot project will take, said Timothy McNulty, director of communications for the Pittsburgh Mayor’s Office.

“There is not all that much we can say at this point,” he said. “It's related to smart city initiatives in the city, and specifically our Department of Mobility and Performance."

“Generally the grant is going to support community engagement and planning on AV initiatives, but the specifics aren't fully worked out yet,” he added in an email. “Certainly it will be informed by work in the AV space that the city is very involved in.”

Detroit will explore some of the first-mile-last-mile issues in the city and how to get residents to transit stops and employment centers.

In Long Beach, the pilot project will also explore the issue of short-distance travel, looking at options like AVs, scooters, bikes and other modes.

The Miami pilot will look into developing an on-demand driverless shuttle program as a replacement for a more conventional fixed-route bus.

San Jose — often known as the “capital of Silicon Valley” — will examine how to better integrate autonomous vehicles into other forms of mobility, and connect destinations such as shopping areas or nightlife locations.

The cities were selected, in part, because of their readiness and ability to look to residents for answers on issues affecting the community; but also because most of them are locations where the Knight Foundation has offices and has invested in the past.

The Knight Foundation focuses its efforts in journalism, the arts, community development, technology and other areas. And autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to represent a significant shift in technology and how transportation may evolve in the coming decades.

“We know it’s an industry where investment levels exceed more than $80 billion and a great percentage of that amount has been transacted in the last two-three years,” said Coral. “We know the tsunami is coming. The question is how do we get ahead of it, so that we can try to influence its implementation to ensure that communities can truly benefit from the changes that come.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.