Do you remember “smart cities”? A few years ago, a number of companies – Microsoft, Google, Samsung and others – excited many people about the concept of turning our cities, with their analog traffic lights and antiquated wastewater systems, into shiny technopolises full of self-righteousness. moving cars, public Wi-Fi and built-in sensors that collect data about the average citizen.
The idea never really took off — many people understandably became nervous about privacy and data collection. But the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) still sees promise in the concept — not exactly collecting data, but the idea of using technology to improve city services.
This week, the agency released $94 million in new financing authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law with the goal of helping dozens of small-scale smart city projects get off the ground — quite literally in some cases. Drone delivery, smart traffic lights and connected vehicles are just some of the projects that will receive this first wave of funding.
In an interview with The edge, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said smart cities still have a lot of merit, especially if they can be used to improve people’s lives.
“It’s about technology, but it’s not about technology per se.”
“The idea is to make sure technology unfolds in ways that make us all better,” Buttigieg said. “It’s about technology, but it’s not about technology per se.”
Authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021, the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) program was created as a pool of cash that cities, states, transportation companies, tribal governments, and other entities could use to test new technologies. The $1 trillion infrastructure bill earmarked $500 million for these “smart” mobility projects over five years, with first prize winners announced this week.
Winning projects include $2 million for Detroit to use sensors and artificial intelligence software to “predict and prevent” traffic accidents in the city; $1.7 million to Arizona to “digitize” roads for vehicle-to-everything technology; and $2 million to Los Angeles for a “code the curb” project that would use sensors to “create a digital inventory of physical sidewalks” to improve traffic flow.
Public transportation would also be a big beneficiary of the SMART grant program, which sees several transportation companies receive funding to improve things like ticketing, route planning, and trip planning. For example, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in Silicon Valley is getting $1.7 million for something called “transit signal priority,” which would upgrade traffic lights to give priority to city buses.
“Little things like that can make all the difference in whether someone decides that using the bus is the right answer for them,” Buttigieg said.
Drones are another technology receiving a major financial boost from the department. Seven projects use “unmanned aircraft systems” to test the feasibility of, for example, delivering medical supplies by drone. Several companies, including Google spinoff Wing and others, are currently experimenting with drone delivery in a handful of communities, which has raised concerns about airspace management and faulty antenna devices getting caught in overhead electrical cables.
Public transportation would also be a major beneficiary of the SMART grant program
Buttigieg said drones are a “classic example” of a technology that could do a lot of good, especially when it comes to things like surveying infrastructure projects or delivering necessary supplies to remote regions where it’s typically too expensive to get to . But drones can also be “very problematic,” he acknowledged, “imagining how to control these drones flying over our homes and cluttering up an airspace that’s hard enough to manage when it comes to conventional air traffic.”
USDOT will be vigilant in addressing issues arising from these projects. “To get to grips with solving those problems, we need to see how these technologies work in the real world,” Buttigieg said.
Tellingly, the maximum reward for each project is only $2 million. That’s just enough money to fund a few drones for a test project or build in a handful of sensors or redesign a few curbs for better traffic management. The purpose of the subsidy program is to provide enough money for cities to experiment and test new technologies.
USDOT wanted to create a funding pipeline, and if any of the winners can prove their projects are delivering positive results, they will likely receive more funding to capitalize on those successes. But when they end up creating more problems than they solve, USDOT pulls the plug.
The hesitation to put a lot of money into smart cities is understandable. Previous attempts to transform cities with data, sensors and autonomous vehicles have not really succeeded. Google spin-off Sidewalk Labs pulled out of Toronto after residents objected to the company’s high-tech, sensor-laden vision for the city’s waterfront. Columbus, Ohio, won $50 million through the federal government’s “Smart City Challenge” in 2016, but many of the changes the originally proposed city remains unfulfilled.
“We need to see how these technologies work in the real world”
Buttigieg said skepticism about smart cities is justified, but that technology can help improve people’s lives if deployed smartly — sorry for the pun. “I think smart city technologies matter more than ever,” he said, “but I think a lesson has been learned over the last decade about trying to fit everything into one grand unified system.”
He recalled from his time as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, when an unnamed “very large technology company” proposed installing a digital dashboard “that integrated everything and promised to create almost a Sim City digital twin of our entire municipal operation.” .”
At the end of his term as mayor, Buttigieg said the dashboard fell short of its grand promise, but gave South Bend an improved way to manage its wastewater system, as well as a 311 system for non-emergency municipal services. The lesson had been learned.
“We are not funding a city or state to digitize or technologize their entire world,” he said. “And there’s some humility in that.”
Not every project funded under the SMART grant program “will prove it will be the big winner,” he added. “But that’s okay. That’s part of the process.”