For Columbus, a city is only smart if the public is behind it

Columbus, Ohio skyline and Scioto River at night.
Lightvision/Getty Images

Columbus, Ohio, may have won the nationwide Smart City Challenge, but all the grant money in the world won’t help it prepare for the future if the city doesn’t also win over public opinion. So as Columbus develops its smart city infrastructure, it’s also working to introduce its citizens to the brave new world of intelligent transit, electrification, and autonomous vehicles.

In 2016, the city was one of 78 U.S. municipalities that submitted proposals to compete in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $40 million Smart City Challenge. Beating out cities from Anchorage to Albuquerque, Columbus won the award for its plan to remake its transportation systems with smart sensors and electric and autonomous vehicles, and extend its infrastructure to reach residents of oft-neglected low-income communities with commercial corridors and health services.

The award brought a surge of national attention and corporate interest to the city. Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, for example, included a $10 million grant to speed up the city’s transition to an electric, low-emission transportation network through his Paul G. Allen Philanthropies foundation. To support the city’s plans, American Electric Power, Ohio’s largest utility, pledged to spend $200 million to update the power grid and put smart meters in hundreds of thousands of homes. Meanwhile, Ohio State University and Honda have partnered to build a nearby autonomous vehicle testing facility. The Transportation Research Center’s $45 million Smart Center broke ground this summer on what will be a 540-acre facility.

All told, Columbus hopes to hit a target of $1 billion in smart city investments by 2020.

To be smart, you first need to educate

As impressive as this growing list of smart city initiatives may be, they won’t succeed unless the community understands the benefits. So, Columbus recently opened a public Experience Center. Located on the Scioto Mile riverfront in the heart of downtown Columbus, the Experience Center is intended to educate locals and visitors about the requirements and benefits of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, connected cars, and smart mobility solutions. Multimedia displays with examples of how the technology can benefit families are part of the experience, as are demonstrations of connected vehicles with advanced safety systems.

“Columbus is a very forward-looking city,” said Peter Esser, head of government affairs for NXP, one of the technology companies working with the municipality. “But people have to buy into it or it’s all for naught. So, the Experience Center gives citizens a chance to see it working in real time.”

For all the hype, most people have never driven an electric car, for example. So, the Experience Center offers a rotating roster of EVs that visitors can test drive for free. Models include the Honda Clarity, Mercedes-Benz GLE, and Nissan Leaf. It allows people to experience the benefits first-hand, without the sales pressure of a dealership.

“Columbus is a very forward-looking city, but people have to buy into it or it’s all for naught.”

The Experience Center also has museum-like exhibits, including the “story tower,” a video display of how technology is being used to solve practical problems. And visitors can learn about the current state of the infrastructure, such as the location of charging stations around town.

Of the displays, one of the most interesting is an electric motorcycle that uses technology from NXP to communicate with a drone. The concept is for the drone to act as an eye in the sky ahead of the motorcycle, warning of traffic and road conditions ahead. NXP, which provides systems ranging from smart card and RFID communications to radar sensors in cars, will also be collaborating on DSRC (dedicated short range communications) wireless communications working between cars and the city’s infrastructure, such as traffic lights.

The city’s next step is to initiate a pilot program with autonomous vehicles running on public streets. Jordan Davis, the director of Smart Columbus, said there’s already a request for proposal out. The plan is to have a regular shuttle service operating in the downtown core near the Experience Center.

“One of the more important parts is the route,” Davis said. After feedback from several autonomous vehicle companies, she explained that the self-driving circuit had to meet several criteria.

“The first condition was road speed. We wanted something around 25 miles per hour, but then there was how do the [human] drivers actually behave on that road,” Davis said. If most drivers were speeding on the proposed route it wouldn’t be practical to introduce a slower, autonomous shuttle that might incite road rage.

The shuttle can’t behave like an amusement park ride.

“And the route should be right turns only, because of the acceleration issue of having a vehicle turning left and nudging out in front of other drivers, which could cause the vehicle to stop,” Davis added. She said the shuttles will also be electric and have to deal with changing routes to avoid summer festival road closures and deal with all kinds of weather conditions, including snow and ice.

The shuttle also can’t behave like an amusement park ride.

“It has to serve a real use case, for real transportation needs,” Davis said, adding that the city hopes to learn about how to maintain and service such self-driving electric vehicles, determine what’s technically feasible, and understand what the realities of dealing with autonomous vehicles are today.

Efficient and safer roads

NXP’s Esser noted that making transportation smart, opens up new opportunities for improving efficiencies–and improving safety.

RFID chips in license plates or window stickers could wirelessly signal whether or not cars were legally parked in particular residential areas and assist in automatic fare collection. More impressive, vehicles outfitted with onboard units that detected RFID signals could be warned about children nearby in reduced visibility situations at night or during a storm. Student ID cards, for example, with RFID tags could easily be distributed to implement such a system, which would then alert drivers as they approached, say, a school zone.

The potential benefits of such smart city technologies seem endless. Much of that potential is thanks to the considerable amount of information that these new initiatives will generate. Davis noted that real-time traffic management, more efficient snow removal, and multimodal transportation trip planning are just a few of the potential future benefits.

columbus a city is only smart if the public behind it

“There are practical implications for improving elderly quality of life, coordinating needs with food banks, and there’s always government efficiencies that can be achieved,” Davis said. For example, the city has three different permitting processes now for road and underground construction; with more coordinated information sharing, that could be streamlined to create minimal disruptions.

In order to accomplish these larger goals, the city has embarked on creating a new Smart Columbus Operating System (SCOS). Columbus’ chief innovation officer, Michael Stevens, has described the critical software program as the backbone of the municipality’s project portfolio. Essentially, the SCOS is a smart city data management platform that will allow the city to collect data from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and use that information to affect outcomes like children’s health care and access to healthy food.

“The power in helping decision in making is so important,” Davis said, noting that Columbus is working with and sharing what they learn with other communities ranging from Pittsburgh to Amsterdam.

“It’s so valuable for cities to be able to talk to each other, because there’s so much we can learn in terms of how to think about policy and what the reality of the technology is,” Davis added. “Right now, we are building the foundational piece in Columbus to unlock this value. And Columbus is fortunate to be able to write the playbook and share what we’ve learned along the way.”


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