By Peter High, published on Forbes
Imagine Pittsburgh in 1979. The Steelers won the Super Bowl, the Pirates won the World Series, and the city nearly went bankrupt. Given the passage of time, it is easy to forget how deeply depressed the city was. Unemployment was nearly at 20 percent.
That same year, a seed was planted that would portend a great renaissance for the city. Carnegie Mellon University started its robotics program that same year. Additionally, a string of forward thinking city leaders were able to see past the end of Pittsburgh’s dominance as a steel town toward a brighter future as a technology-centric economy.
I recently spoke with Mayor William Peduto about this, and he offered many examples of the current administration’s progressive thinking about the union between city government, universities, and private industry. In September, Uber announced that they would pilot their driverless car initiative in Pittsburgh, for instance. Also, last year, Peduto’s chief innovation officer (a rare role in city government) announced the formation of PGH Lab, which provides government assistance to entrepreneurs. Additionally, in 2014, the city government signed an agreement with Carnegie Mellon to utilize that university as Pittsburgh’s own research and development department, while Carnegie Mellon can use the city as its own urban lab. Through it all, Pittsburgh has become a model city for others to learn from.
Peter High: In September of this year there was quite a splash made when Uber began its pilot driverless car initiative in Pittsburgh. How has it gone so far and what are the plans for the foreseeable future?
Bill Peduto: It was about two years in the making. The Uber team came to Pittsburgh with the intent to kick the tires to see if our city could become a global center for their autonomous vehicle research and development. There were not looking for government money or any type of subsidy. They were looking for a partner who was willing to create an urban lab. We had had a couple of decades of experience working with Carnegie Mellon [CMU] on autonomous vehicles in the city and had CMU’s cars already on our streets. It was not a big leap for us to be able to accommodate Uber.
Over the course of the past year and a half, Uber has employed over six-hundred employees in the city, and I expect that number to be over a thousand by the end of 2017. They are committed to spending up to one billion dollars within the city. Almost any time of the day, on numerous occasions, you can see the vehicles downtown within prescribed areas of the city. I expect that over the course of the next few years that geographical footprint will be expanding as well.
High: There are a lot of people who are pontificating as to how quickly driverless cars will become a reality. Given the city’s history with driverless cars, how has this informed your thoughts about how rapidly this might take off more generally for the public?
Peduto: I think if you asked anybody two years ago, “Do you anticipate driverless cars on the streets of an American city in the next 20 months?” there would have been few people who would have thought that that would be a reality. The technology has been there for over a decade, but the culture has not. We could have driverless planes. The technology exists, but the moment somebody would walk onto a plane and there would not be a pilot in the cabin, they would walk off the plane. I do not think the culture has caught up to the technology yet. The way that major automobile manufacturers are promoting their new lines of vehicles, they are doing it through increased autonomous technology. I think that within the next five years you will see a streamlining of different functions of the car which will contain autonomous ability. The sensors that will be utilized will allow the cars to talk to each other. It is not simply having an autonomous vehicle, but a series of vehicles that know exactly how far away to stay from each other, can anticipate what a car three cars ahead is doing and how to react to it before the human eye can even catch it, and then building that network into the public right of way with sensor detectors and cameras that can collect all this data and make our roads much more safe and efficient.
We are already rolling out the next phase of the smartest traffic signals in the world. Our partnership with Carnegie Mellon over a system called SureTrack allows us to capture information in real time and through a network of traffic signals and change the timing of the green lights and the red lights to increase efficiency by 31 percent. You do not have to add a new turning lane or build another roadway, you can use the existing roadways that you have, and through automation and sensors be able to make the system much more efficient and safe for bicyclists and pedestrians as well.
High: You have referenced the partnership the city of Pittsburgh has formed with Carnegie Mellon University. How do you see the lessons of the partnership between city governments, academia, and private business working together?