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Local Officials Seek State, Fed Funds for Autonomous Systems

With a new bill to allow testing of self-driving vehicles without a human driver to take over in an emergency, Pennsylvania took an important step last week to bolster the development of the industry there.

Autonomous vehicle
(TNS) — With the introduction of a bill to allow testing of self-driving vehicles without a human driver to take over in an emergency, Pennsylvania took an important step last week to bolster the development of the industry here.

But that was just one of two major steps a recent study recommended to continue expanding autonomous research in Pittsburgh and attract to the region businesses that produce and manufacture autonomous components. The other step calls for the public investment of $154.3 million to supplement billions in private investment, money that would create demonstration corridors, provide venture capital and train the workforce for the emerging industry.

The 153-page study, prepared for the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Industrial Development Corp., was released with little fanfare in September. It reviews the impact the research sector has had on the region and presents a map of actions to ensure that spin-off industries come or remain here.

Chamber President Matt Smith on Thursday praised the proposed legislation but said the financial support is equally as important.

The bill, introduced Thursday by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Johnstown, with bipartisan support, would allow autonomous vehicle developers such as Argo AI, Aurora and Locomation, which are investing billions in research and development in the region, to also conduct on-road testing here.

“We’re in a competition,” Mr. Smith said. “[Other states] see opportunities to take what we have here in Pennsylvania. Other states are putting pubic dollars into this. We think that is really important.”

Huge potential

How promising is the development of autonomous technology, which also includes robotics and traffic control, areas in which Carnegie Mellon University is among the world leaders?

Capturing 10% of the future market that would include manufacturing could lead to $100 billion worth of economic development, according to a recent study.

The study, titled Forefront: Securing Pittsburgh’s Break-out Position in Autonomous Mobile Systems, estimates it will be a $1 trillion global industry by 2025-26. With billions already invested in research and development, the study said, the region is off to a strong start.

“... Pittsburgh’s robust core competencies [position] it well to be a major participant in this transformational economic opportunity,” the study said. “Realizing this full potential, however, requires addressing some of the shortfalls and gaps in the regional ecosystem, coordinating strategies and actions designed to optimize the regional autonomy environment and supporting ecosystem for competitive success.

“Addressing these needs requires investment of both dollars and human capital across the multiple strategies and actions outlined herein.”

To determine the industry’s current role in the regional economy, the study by local consultant TEConomy Partners analyzed 71 companies that count the autonomous systems industry as their core business. It found those firms provide about 6,300 jobs directly and another 8,604 at companies they do business with.

Nationwide, in autonomous vehicles alone, TEConomy cited a 2019 study by the Boston Consulting Group and the Detroit Mobility Lab2 that estimated 85,000 new jobs by 2028 plus another 7,000 jobs in related work to retrofit highways to allow vehicles to communicate with each and receive road conditions automatically.

That sets the stage for the region to have strong growth in those areas, “but only if Pittsburgh can continue to generate innovative companies advancing autonomous systems solutions, retain large industry employers and act as a site for their expanding testing operations, and provide an advantageous location for autonomous systems companies to grow their employment in manufacturing, business support, and other administrative and service functions as they expand in the course of products reaching widespread deployment.”

The region must take additional steps to ensure it benefits from hosting research and development, the study said.

“In the face of competition from other states for these new jobs, the majority of which do not require proximity to universities and labs to perform operations and support services-oriented functions within the AV industry, there is no guarantee that Pittsburgh will be the primary destination for ongoing growth as AV companies seek to find attractive environments to site their new business functions,” the report said.

Protecting the future

The consultant called for “bold action” by state and local officials to keep the development of autonomous systems here.

That includes following up the proposed legislative change with a six-step plan to invest $154.3 million to prepare the region to manufacture autonomous systems. That total includes $20 million in federal funds, $56 million from the state, and $78.3 million from the region.

Mr. Langerholc, who became head of the Senate Transportation Committee a year ago, toured local autonomous vehicle facilities last spring and returned to announce the vehicle testing legislation Thursday. He said he’s sold on the potential for the industry and would strongly consider the state’s share of the recommended funding.

“I would not rule that out,” he said. “This is an investment that makes sense across all levels. We have the worldwide leader in this technology right here. We have to take advantage of that.”

The state Department of Community and Economic Development didn’t comment directly on the request for state funding to support the study’s recommendations, but it pointed out that it has a variety of programs to support such industries.

“DCED is always open to conversations with the Autonomous Vehicle industry about addressing their current and future needs,” communications director Penny Ickes said in an e-mail. “The AV sector has had a lot of success in the commonwealth, and the Wolf administration is excited to see what the future holds for this industry.”

The region may have no better opportunity for a transformational industry, Mr. Smith said.

“For us, there is not going to be a more important sector going forward,” he said. “We think this is going to be a huge benefit for the entire region.”

© 2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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