Pittsburgh's smart city efforts include autonomous driving, open data, and renewable energy

Source: TechRepublic on November 18, 2016 | Teena Maddox

Innovation includes a DoT grant funding smart traffic lights that will eventually talk to cars. Partnerships with Uber and CMU have created an urban lab for autonomous driving, open data and more.

Pittsburgh is a town known more for steel mills and football fans than high tech, despite the presence of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), but it is busy positioning itself on the cusp of smart city technology.

The city has partnered with Uber on its self-driving pilot and it's working on smart traffic lights thanks to $10.9 million in funding from the US Department of Transportation (DoT) as part of the DoT's $165 million latest funding round for smart city projects. Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto has high hopes that a full conversion to a smart city will happen sooner rather than later, and he's taking steps to make that happen, despite joking that self-driving cars could be what keeps him from getting re-elected.

"The next generation of urban mobility will take hold ... The technology has been here for a while, and it's being implemented around the world," Peduto said.

SEE: The world's smartest cities: What IoT and smart governments will mean for you (TechRepublic)

Partnering with CMU has its benefits

Pittsburgh is the home for CMU and it has helped with the push to add new technology. Pittsburgh is partnering with the university to serve as an urban lab for CMU's research and development. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between CMU and the city serves as a formal partnership to allow CMU to try new tech around Pittsburgh without undergoing a lengthy approval process, similar to how the city is able to send maintenance crews out to do small projects without first seeking funding, Peduto explained.

"I can patch potholes by utilizing staff, and I can utilize Carnegie Mellon without having to go through an RFP [Request for Proposal] process to test technology in the city," Peduto said.

The city has sensors on its streets that were first used to track snowplows, and then it moved into the next generation of smart traffic signals. The $10.9 million from the DoT will be used to expand the use of smart traffic signals, Peduto said.

"It's a CMU-based company that is able to create traffic signals that use radar and sensors to know real time how far back traffic is queued and then create algorithms so that everything can move more efficiently. It's been proven to make traffic move 31% better. The signals talk to each other, and they have the ability to learn where heavy traffic periods happen. We're going to take that through a much larger scale throughout all of our major corridors," Peduto said.

Opting for self-driving cars with Uber

The city started working with Uber 20 months ago to put self-driving cars on the streets and make Pittsburgh a global autonomous vehicle center. In the next few years, the sensors from those vehicles will be able to communicate with smart traffic signals. The partnership has created more than 600 jobs, and by next year there will be more than 1,000 people employed as part of the autonomous driving initiative. "Uber's investment in Pittsburgh will likely exceed $1 billion without them asking for a dollar of government money," he said.

Peduto said Uber chose Pittsburgh in part because it offered "green light governing" where it was easier to implement technology. "It comes from a belief that innovation will always come before regulation," he said, explaining that regulations on airlines didn't come until decades after the Wright brothers designed the first airplane, and that it took many years for automobile regulations to surface after the debut of the car.

"Safety is essential, and basic regulation through conversations and meetings with experts in the field, but then you allow the innovation to take hold and allow the city to become an urban lab and from that you see progress," he said.

"That's the same as when this country moved away from having elevator operators, and people could push their own buttons. There were people who could not ride their own elevator without the safety of having the operator there," he said.

Peduto said he thinks autonomous driving will make the roads safer.

"We have come to accept that 1.2 million people each year on this earth are killed by automobile-related accidents, and the vast majority [of those accidents is the result of] human error, and we assume and accept that number. We can drastically reduce those numbers, but you have to take the first few steps. It doesn't become 100% safe automatically. You have to be able to provide the opportunity for innovation to take hold," he emphasized.

Giving the green light to innovation

Peduto said he didn't want Pittsburgh to miss out on the opportunity to be part of this groundbreaking moment in technology.

"I think that with the technology that we're seeing today, it's not a matter of if, it's more a matter of when, and if you wait to have 100% of regulations in place, it just assures it's going to happen somewhere else whether that's Singapore or Europe or somewhere else in Asia, and those industries of tomorrow will be located in those areas. The US has always led the world in innovation and it's because it's always had a good balance between innovation and regulation."

Peduto said he thinks smaller municipalities are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the smart city opportunities out there right now, even more so than large, global cities. He said Bogota, Colombia, is an innovation center right now with transportation technology.

"I think that it's because of the scale that cities like those are literally able to get things done because they aren't that big and at the same time the world takes notice. Whether it's Louisville [Ky.] or Austin or Columbus, Ohio, where this great innovation is becoming transformational is in the mid-sized cities."

Using renewable energy in Pittsburgh

The next step for Pittsburgh is combining the future of urban mobility with renewable energy.

Read more here