What the US Infrastructure Plan Means for Auto Technology

$1 trillion: It’s a potential huge cash infusion into the US economy with a big focus on technology.

That’s a key thing about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – it expands the concept of infrastructure to embrace smart-city and V2X applications. The bill, passed by the Senate and now subject to political wrangling in the House of Representatives, includes financial support for cities to reduce traffic, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, as well as funds to modernize and electrify public transportation. Also, it will invest $65Bn in broadband deployment.

Of special interest to autotech start-ups, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I) program will fund research and development on transportation infrastructure technologies, including early-stage and conceptual projects. The bill has something for everyone and probably not enough for anyone. Some complain there should be more spending on roads and bridges, while groups including the National Association of City Transportation Officials would like to see even more spent on public transportation.

Focus on Vision Zero

The Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program provides $5Bn to fund all aspects of reducing transportation-related fatalities and injuries, from setting a goal and timeline through analysis of what’s needed through new technologies, and roadway planning and design. Notably, it includes “mechanisms for evaluating the outcomes and effectiveness of the comprehensive safety action plan, including the means by which that effectiveness will be reported to residents in a locality”.

A lack of clarity on real outcomes for big tech projects of all kinds is one of the factors that makes city officials leery of investments in new technology. A data-driven approach upfront combined with the ability to analyze rich data afterwards let planners make the best decisions and justify the investment. So, it’s important that the bill emphasizes analysis but, even with so much data available from connected vehicles and infrastructure, will cities be able to make use of it?

Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, notes that traditional methods of collecting data are extremely expensive and unrepresentative. “They only represent a tiny sliver of the population, and are being used to make very expensive and long-lasting infrastructure decision. The good news is there are other sources of data that are free or extremely inexpensive for cities to leverage.” Populus provides a platform that brings together data from private fleets, currently from micromobility providers like shared scooters, with a planned expansion to delivery and car-sharing services.

New money for new tech

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Acts directs the Transportation Department to create and administer a Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program. Modeled on the successful Smart Cities Challenge, local governments can apply for up to $50M for larger cities and up to $20M for rural community and regional partnerships to trial new technologies.

Note that word “revolutionizing.” The bill expands the concept of transportation to include mobility innovations that don’t involve hardscape or traditional vehicles. Brittney Kohler, legislative director for transportation and infrastructure for the National League of Cities, said: “We should recognize that all new modes of transportation travel on the road.” In addition to new types of vehicles like shared scooters and autonomous shuttles, she said the concept of mobility should be linked to outcomes. Those include reducing the time it takes to get someplace, as well as looking at trips from an overall productivity perspective, instead of simply how long it takes an individual car to reach a destination.

“We need to look at this as a system,” Kohler says. She welcomes the inclusion of grants for smaller cities and rural areas, saying the popularity of Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grants shows there’s pent-up demand.

“Our smallest cities want to be sure they’re on an equal playing field with larger cities or states, to take advantage of the new Safe Streets for All or the SMART grants in this package. A project that starts in a small city can be replicated across all small cities across the country. Nothing will have the same impact as investing in replicable technology and transportation upgrades in those communities.”

The broadband connection

Peachtree Corners welcomes the inclusion of broadband connectivity in the bill. The planned community in Georgia was developed in 2012 as a smart-city technology incubator and real-word testing ground. The city owns all of the roads, sidewalks and rights-of-way. With fiber in the streets and a 5G partnership with T-Mobile, Peachtree Corners’ Curiosity Lab includes a three-mile testing track for autonomous vehicles. It makes all this available to companies for testing applications.

The city already is working with Qualcomm on connected vehicle and V2I tests. Brandon Branham, assistant city manager and chief technology officer, says funding to support public-private partnerships like these will allow let the city expand those tests to not only more of its own intersections but also to other cities and corridors.

Despite its being a tech hub, there are still areas of the city where broadband is lacking, and Branham hopes to use ARPA funds to expand access and install wifi hotspots around town. “Obviously, governments are not innovators. We need the private sector to come along and create technologies to enhance our communities,” Branham says.

A potential win for smarter cities

Clewlow says the bill will help cities update their digital as well as physical infrastructures. “We have a situation where the private sector, including mobility services, are all very smart and digital. They’re advancing their technologies faster than cities are able to. Having more financial resources to deploy to catch up is critically important,” she says.

What the final bill will look like is still to be determined. Kohler of the National League of Cities says, “It’s going to take a variety of voices standing up for these types of investment in the package and saying, ‘Now is indeed the time to make these investments.’”

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