Columbus Wins $40M “Smart City” Grant With Plan to Deploy Driverless Vehicles

June 27, 2016 | Automotive

On June 23, 2016, the Department of Transportation formally announced that Columbus, Ohio, is the winner of the Department’s Smart City Challenge, a startup-inspired contest offering a $40 million grant to the city with the best solutions for automated transportation, climate change, and urban inequality. Seventy-eight cities created proposals, which were narrowed down to seven finalists earlier this month. Columbus will combine the prize money with pledged funding from private partners—$140 million in total—to develop a 21st century urban infrastructure.

Columbus’s proposal includes a plan to deploy autonomous, self-driving vehicles in an underserved community in Columbus to improve access to jobs. The city has currently partnered with Ohio State University (OSU) on a pilot program to test on-demand driverless vehicles on the OSU campus, the “Smart Mobile Operation: OSU Transportation Hub,” or “SMOOTH.” Columbus’s Smart City proposal promises to expand the SMOOTH pilot program to provide “last mile” access to a transit terminal in the city. These vehicles currently use GPS, Vehicle-to-Vehicle communications, internal map databases, and pedestrian detection technologies to navigate autonomously along crowded roadways. The expanded pilot program would integrate enhanced vision technology as well as sensors embedded into the roads themselves to enable the vehicles to better stay in a lane and obey traffic signals.

By promoting the adoption of driverless transportation, city officials hope to address social and economic inequality by improving access to higher education, job opportunities, and health care. The technologies at the center of Columbus’s proposal will be developed in cooperation with OSU and local business partners, including IBM, Battelle, and Clean Fuels Ohio. City officials expect the Smart City grant to be a catalyst for job growth and a boon to the local economy.

The Smart City grant may also be a catalyst for the development of laws and regulations governing autonomous vehicle technology. While some states have passed laws regulating the use of autonomous vehicles on public roadways, most states, including Ohio, currently have no laws on the books addressing autonomous vehicles. The Columbus proposal appears to contemplate an autonomous car that is truly driverless, which would not be permissible under current or proposed regulations in Washington, D.C., and California that require a driver to be present and ready to take control of the autonomous vehicle. Thus, in order to accommodate the Columbus Smart City proposal, regulations in Ohio may have to go beyond what is permitted in D.C. and California, and may become a model for other states that want to implement similar autonomous vehicle projects. Ohio could look to Florida law, for example, which permits driverless vehicles so long as there is an operator—who does not need to be present in the car—to take control of the vehicle, or develop its own regulatory scheme. In any case, the Columbus Smart City project, and Ohio’s development of laws and regulations on autonomous vehicles, will be worth keeping an eye on.

More information on the Smart City Challenge can be found here:

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