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Las Vegas to Launch 'Innovation District' Geared Toward High-Tech Transportation Testing

In the fight to lure transportation companies testing emerging technologies to Las Vegas, the City Council has voted to open its downtown core to testing.

There are a lot of cities, counties and states trying to lure companies working on autonomous and connected vehicles to conduct their futuristic business locally.

But Las Vegas city officials think they have a unique advantage in that competition: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The event, which drew more than 170,000 people to Las Vegas in January, has become one of the signature showcases for emerging transportation tech.

And David Bowers, the city’s director of public works, has just won the city council’s approval to leverage that annual spotlight into an advantage in the competition to lure the high-tech transportation industry to town. Last week, the Las Vegas City Council unanimously passed a resolution declaring its downtown to be an “innovation district.” That gives Bowers and city staff the authority to craft policies and procedures necessary to pave the way for those companies to test out emerging technologies in the city’s tourism core.

The resolution will also serve as proof that Bowers can show to companies to convince them that the city is serious about working with them.

“It is a competition,” Bowers said. “It is a growing industry, and the city really is seeking to expand its industrial base, its economic base with different technologies.”

Las Vegas has plenty of competitors in the space, especially when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Universities such as Carnegie Mellon, the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona have all struck up partnerships with private industry to develop autonomous vehicles. California boasts an AV testing program that includes 11 industry leaders testing their vehicles on public roads. Massachusetts has created a task force to draw those companies in, while Tennessee state legislators are pushing for legislation to make it easier for the private sector to test the vehicles on its roads.

Ben Miller
Las Vegas’ “innovation district” is its answer to that competition, and could give companies access to a unique environment — the city’s infamous strip of casinos swarms with pedestrians, taxis, and Lyft and Uber drivers. The city is also considering building a more controlled testing grounds for transportation technology in the less dense northwest corner of its boundary.

Bowers is also betting that the city’s status as host of CES, along with the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s annual auto show, will also make it an easy choice as a location to set up research and testing projects that live outside the boundaries of the conventions.

In fact, he said, CES has already allowed the city to set up on experiment in vehicle-to-infrastructure connection. Delphi Automotive, which showed off autonomous vehicle technology at this year’s convention, has also outfitted a small circuit of about six intersections close to the city’s convention center with hardware that lets traffic signals communicate directly with smart cars. So if an autonomous vehicle, for instance, were driving through the area, it wouldn’t have to rely on a camera to point at the traffic lights and determine whether it could travel through the intersection. The car could instead connect with the traffic signal and learn how much longer it would be until the light changed.

That’s not something Delphi set up just to tear down after CES — the hardware remains in place.

“What we’re hoping with this test bed is that other companies are coming here, setting up shop, establishing their proving grounds for the next show, and working year over year to make it better,” Bowers said.

There are a few other factors working in the city’s favor. Nevada was the first state to formally allow autonomous vehicles to drive on its public roads after it passed legislation in 2011. Faraday Future, which is competing with Tesla Motors to build high-tech electric cars, is gunning to make North Las Vegas — a separate city, but within the Las Vegas metropolitan area — home to its manufacturing base.

Las Vegas is also competing to win the $50 million prize attached to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Bowers said that if the city wins that money, it will likely put a lot of it to work in tandem with its newly declared “Innovation District.” Some of the city’s proposed smart city projects for downtown include:

  • Setting up parking space sensors that will allow the city to show where parking is available in real time.
  • Upgrading traffic signals so they can work together to get emergency response vehicles to their destinations more quickly.
  • Monitoring bike-share stations to show how many bicycles are available in each location.
Las Vegas is competing with 76 other cities for the prize, which the U.S. DOT will award to one finalist in June.

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.