Cities vie to become hubs of self-driving technology

Cities that have emerged as leaders in autonomous vehicle testing and innovation have some combination of leading corporations, cutting edge university research and enthusiastic political support

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The development of self-driving cars has pitched a handful of cities into a new gold rush, a chance to be at the forefront of a new technology that will give rise to billion-dollar companies and thousands of new jobs.

A self-driving Uber car drives down River Road on Pittsburgh's north side.

The stakes are enormous. Last year, Goldman Sachs projected the market for advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles would grow from about $3 billion in 2015 to $96 billion in 2025 and $290 billion in 2035.

In some cities, automakers, suppliers and technology companies are clustering to test their self-driving vehicles. In others, governors and mayors are beckoning the industry by changing laws or touting other inducements.

“I think it’s about being a part of the race,” said Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a group of top CEOs that helped the Ohio city beat out tech hubs such as Austin, Pittsburgh and San Francisco to win federal grant money through the government's Smart City Challenge.


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Cities are taking different paths to success. In Detroit, for instance, major corporations form the backbone for the emerging technology. In others — such as Boston, Pittsburgh and Austin — universities with cutting-edge research have spawned talented engineers and start-up companies.

Here are the nation's hot spots that have emerged as leaders in the race to self-driving cars:


Austin Mayor Steve Adler likes to refer to Texas' capital city as “the Kitty Hawk of driverless cars,” referencing the site of the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903.

That's because Google's self-driving car unit, Waymo, quietly chose Austin for the first fully-autonomous test drive in 2015. Now Austin officials want more.

"We are trying to do everything we can to help promote and advance the future of this technology," Adler said. "We think it’s the wave of the future. We think it is going to help our city."

The city and the state have put political differences aside to embrace partnerships and legislation designed to attract testing and investment. Austin is a part of a statewide consortium that includes the University of Texas and Texas A&M University to create a network of proving grounds and testing areas.

— Brent Snavely, Detroit Free Press


In October, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced policies intended to put the city at the forefront.

"Boston is ready to lead the charge on self-driving vehicles," Walsh said in a statement.

Area technology companies are already at work. NuTonomy, a company that emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013, is working with French automaker PSA Groupe on a self-driving car.

— Brent Snavely, Detroit Free Press

In October, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced policies intended to put the city at the forefront.

"Boston is ready to lead the charge on self-driving vehicles," Walsh said in a statement.

Area technology companies are already at work. NuTonomy, a company that emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013, is working with French automaker PSA Groupe on a self-driving car.

— Brent Snavely, Detroit Free Press


Columbus leaders are tickled their city was chosen for $50 million in federal and private funding over seven other finalists. Key to Columbus’ win was the buy-in of the city’s major employers, who have come to view their home city’s preparation for autonomous vehicles as part of the companies’ preparation for profits in the next century.

It combined investments from top local companies, the state of Ohio and Ohio State University to pool more than $400 million for autonomous and electric vehicles.

“There are a select group of cities that are going to be a part of the race. And Columbus is in the race, and it always will be," Fischer said. "Some are going to win on certain projects, Columbus will win on others, and collectively the country will win.”

— Chrissie Thompson, Cincinnati Enquirer


A former industrial site 30 miles southwest of downtown Detroit where Rosie the Riveter worked during World War II is where the Motor City is planting one of its most significant flags in the battle to capture a significant role in the future of self-driving cars.

It is slated to become Michigan's newest testing ground for autonomous and connected vehicles.

“What we’re going to create is ... a lifelike proving ground so we can really exercise these (driverless) vehicles,” said John Maddox, CEO of The American Center for Mobility, which is expected to open late this year. “No one will have the full scope of what we will have.”

General Motors CEO Mary Barra emphasized the company's commitment to maintaining the state's leadership when she announced in December that the automaker will build and test autonomous Chevrolet Bolts in metro Detroit.

Ford Motor Vice Chairman Bill Ford said last year Detroit “can be and should be ground zero,” for the future of mobility.

— Brent Snavely and Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press 


Nashville was chosen as one of 10 global cities for an autonomous vehicles initiative launched last year by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute.

It certainly doesn't hurt that Nissan's U.S. headquarters is outside the city in Smyrna and that the Japanese automaker was among the first to predict when it would field self-driving cars for sale  — 2020.

The city’s newly appointed transportation director, Erin Hafkenschiel, wants to see shared electric autonomous vehicles in Nashville that would operate similar to Uber or Lyft. That would help alleviate congestion problems in tandem with major investments in mass transit, sidewalks and bikeways, she said.

The city has been upgrading its traffic signals to be compatible with autonomous vehicles.

— Lizzy Alfs, The Tennessean


Northern Nevada has been at the forefront of self-driving car testing since 2011, when it became the first state to adopt legislation authorizing self-driving car testing.

Google was lured to Nevada by the state's dry weather and its wide-open spaces when it ran into early resistance from California. Plus, Tesla's Gigafactory, a massive 5-million-square-foot factory that began pumping out batteries for its electric cars, is on Reno's outskirts. Tesla has been aggressive in developing self-driving vehicles.

“Six years ago, we envisioned people buying self-driving cars,” said Bruce Breslow, director of the Nevada Department of Business & Industry. “Now it looks like the first major push is going to be in fleets for self-driving cars whether it be a taxicab fleet, a transportation network company like Uber or Lyft or even self-driving trucks.”

— Jason Hildalgo, Reno Gazette-Journal


Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey touts a hands-off regulatory environment in an effort to lure autonomous vehicle testing to his state, and the tactic has led to some high-profile wins.

In December, Uber joined companies such as Waymo and Ford, which were already testing self-driving cars in the state. Uber promptly trucked its self-driving cars to Arizona in December following a registration dispute in California over not having the correct permits.

In April, Waymo announced it would begin taking applications from Phoenix-area residents who want to be among the hundreds of riders testing an expanded fleet of Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivans outfitted with Waymo's myriad autonomous car sensors.

— Ryan Randazzo, Arizona Republic


With talented professionals in the autonomous vehicle space at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania's second-largest city quickly emerged as an attractive base for the world's leading self-driving car companies.

Uber, which recruited many of CMU's self-driving car experts, has located a major R&D facility in Pittsburgh. And Uber made a splash in September when it became the first major American company to offer urban rides to consumers in partially self-driving vehicles, choosing the confusing, pedestrian-filled, bridge-laden streets of Pittsburgh for the pilot program.

But Uber's relationship with the city has soured. Mayor Bill Peduto has publicly assailed Uber for refusing to back the city's application for a federal cities innovation grant and for making a stingy contribution to a philanthropic initiative.

That spat aside, Uber has shown no signs of easing off the accelerator in Pennsylvania. Competitors are fast on its heels. In February, Ford announced it would invest $1 billion over five years in Pittsburgh-based autonomous car start-up Argo AI.

— Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY

Silicon Valley

With Silicon Valley at the heart of developing self-driving cars, California has become a top testing ground.

Google has been letting its high-tech, self-driving cars wheel around the area south of San Francisco for several years. Now, about 30 companies — from traditional automakers to upstart tech companies — have taken out the paperwork to test self-driving cars in the Golden State.

“Silicon Valley is the right place to be doing a lot of this work,” says Greg Larson, chief of the Office of Traffic Operation Research for the California DOT. Instead of building a car with a computer, “this is building a computer and putting a car around it.”

— Marco della Cava, USA TODAY 

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