Background and Intended Outcomes of Event

Through its participation in the Knight Foundation Autonomous Vehicle Initiative, the City of Pittsburgh has had the opportunity to explore the impact of multiple forms of autonomous vehicle technologies with a cohort of other cities across diverse geographic locations, sizes and climates involved in their development and deployment sharing learnings. In building capacity for positions in municipal government, this funding has allowed for community engagement on the topic of autonomous vehicle services and helped facilitate discussions between the public and government for outlining engagement with emerging forms of mobility technology in ways that otherwise would have likely not occurred. Additionally, this work has allowed for collaboration with Carnegie Mellon on research on how the deployment of Personal Delivery Devices and Autonomous Vehicles would work on their streets and what the impact would be on the residents of their communities. In the interest of facilitating public engagement around the topic of AVs and their impact on the economy and job growth in the region at a turning point, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) hosted a community roundtable around the past, present and future of autonomous vehicle systems in Pittsburgh.

The venue was The Roundhouse co-working space, notable because it is where Carnegie Mellon University and other industry partners originally performed work on their autonomous vehicles in the DARPA Urban Challenge to emphasize the transformation that has been seen as a result of that work, with that space being converted from a garage to a solar-powered co-working space that several businesses use. Community Kitchen was selected to cater the event, whose staff is composed of formerly incarcerated individuals developing new skillsets to help them re-enter society. An intentional selection, as one of the central topics at the event was workforce development.

The conversation for the day was focused on the past experiences with AV development in Pittsburgh and helped stimulate discussions amongst attendees about what some of the future opportunities are in Pittsburgh’s emerging tech space for all Pittsburghers.

What Topics Were Covered?

The event was attended by members of local government, consultants, university researchers and faculty as well as members of industry and academia. DOMI Director Kim Lucas provided opening remarks, drawing parallels with two earlier periods in the history of autonomous vehicles and relating them to where Pittsburgh is currently. Her first parallel was with the 1935 Pontiac Phantom Auto, which was built out of safety concerns of the era though it ultimately seemed like a way to avoid discussing road safety. Since that time, a fully-executed autonomous or driverless vehicle system hasn’t been developed, however Director Lucas' second parallel focused on a different approach outlined in IEEE’s concept of “The Electric Highway”, which was originally proposed in 1969. This proposal called for roads outfitted with computing equipment while vehicles would be outfitted with sensors and technologies that would allow for their guidance for automated driving. In making these parallels and mentioning the history of Pittsburgh’s role in the 2007 DARPA Challenge, Director Lucas emphasized that there is room for all of this technology on Pittsburgh’s streets as it is the birthplace of the contemporary AV as well as an innovator in the connected infrastructure space with the launch of SmartSpines. While Pittsburgh is smaller than a number of markets where AVs are deployed, it’s an ideal place to export ideas to a number of mid-sized cities. Pittsburgh is home to multiple universities doing groundbreaking work and Director Lucas emphasized the culture of innovation that exists in Pittsburgh between the universities, community organizations and government and their willingness to work towards common goals and produce research that verifies the effects and investigates new manners for improvement. When it comes to Pittsburgh there’s a small-town feel but in the technology space there’s also a culture of collaboration towards innovation. Together these form an environment vital to the growth of innovation where the impact of collaboration is given proper value and there’s a willingness amongst stakeholders in the public and private sectors to come together and have discussions to drive the development of meaningful guidance to help push emerging technologies in a direction that Pittsburghers support and feel a sense of ownership towards. In her closing remarks, Director Lucas emphasized her belief that Pittsburgh is Everytown, USA and if solutions can work here, they can likely work in so many other places.


The Winding Path of Autonomous Vehicles

Moderated by Erin Clark, Senior Associate at CityFi. Panelists included Armin Samii of Dashcam For Your Bike, Clark Haynes of Velo.AI, Stan Caldwell of Traffic21 and consultant and connected vehicle industry expert Barry C. Einsig.

Identifying Community Needs to Avoid Technology for Technology’s Sake

This discussion was moderated by Allanté Whitmore, SAFE's director of their Autonomous Vehicle Initiative. Panelists included CMU Heinz College researcher Corey Harper and Pitt's Human Engineering Research Laboratories' Sivakanthan Sivashankar as well as InnovatePGH Executive Director Sean Luther.

Identifying Community Needs to Avoid Technology for Technology’s Sake

This discussion was moderated by Pittsburgh innovation expert and Magna International's Senior Manager of Government Affairs, Jackie Erickson. The conversation was informed by the perspectives of Professor Alessandro Fascetti from the University of Pittsburgh's Discover Laboratory, Michel Conklin of SWPA Bots IQ and Trever Stoll of PGH Lab.

What We Heard

  • Pittsburgh is in the midst of a shift in its approach towards technology to be more geared towards ethical applications of technology as opposed to enticing moves from favored large enterprises that it hopes will create a regional economic engine
    Pittsburgh had high hopes for Autonomous Vehicles, often seeing them as a way to address transportation and accessibility issues, however after multiple closures and a trajectory that wasn’t in-line with predictions the city is reassessing its previous approach. Instead of hoping that equity, safety and accessibility find a way in discussions, the City recognizes the need to center these topics in conversations about development to ensure they’re baked in and not an easily-pruned afterthought. The City has an opportunity to form a balance where industry delivers outcomes that are based on policies and principles the people would like to see.
  • Robo Taxi companies’ focus on safety wasn’t always where it should have been
    Two of the panelists in the Winding Path of Autonomous Vehicles described getting interested in the work for safety reasons but ultimately being disillusioned by their companies’ approaches. For both panelists, this disillusionment came from a belief that the focus of safety was almost exclusively focused on vehicle passengers while approaches that would improve the safety of outside pedestrians and cyclists were often ignored. In the rush to be the first to deploy there was often a philosophy of “if it means ignoring risks, so be it” with what the panelists felt were solvable issues, leading both of them to leave their companies to focus on how to better handle those risks. While there were some differences in philosophy and approaches, both emphasized the need for more technology to make cyclists and pedestrians safer.
  • As the trajectory for AV deployment changes, connected vehicle investments make more sense for an impact in the short term
    A number of cities are beginning to really invest in connected infrastructure. While it makes sense for government to let industry explore different business models, the underlying technology supporting this growth should be supported with research at universities. While Argo shut down, a number of workers and resources were repositioned in Ford to focus on lower levels of automation and connected vehicles. A similar change in the industry is expected. Pittsburgh’s investment in SmartSpines’ corridors outfitted with smart signal technology also represents an advancement in this space. Additionally, connected infrastructure, which allows for communication between multiple vehicles through V2V(vehicle to vehicle) or communication from vehicles to the environment by way of V2I (vehicle to infrastructure), provide opportunities to improve safety to a wider swath of road users when implemented. Safety doesn’t sell as well as shiny new tech though. Even with lower levels of automation there is still a possibility that the safety problems can be redistributed to other areas. For instance, if there is a focus on improving safety for internal occupants that leads to an overall positive shift in safety, effort has to be put in to ensure that the danger isn’t being displaced to pedestrians and cyclists by way of a lack of care due to a perceived lack of liability. There is a need to needle into broad statistics to ensure that overall improvements don’t hide shortcomings for smaller and more vulnerable groups.
  • There are some interesting parallels between Autonomous Vehicles and smart home technology that can help inform our view of how AV technology will develop
    When they started off, smart home technology was focused on bespoke control centers that would monitor all aspects of a house while costing thousands, if not millions of dollars, however they’re largely useless now. Google re-envisioned this concept decades later as a constellation of smaller devices that work in concert, starting with a smart thermostat and expanding to a variety of smaller and cheaper but more powerful devices that work in concert. Our previous vision of AV technology is likely to be very different from what is deployed successfully, as it will likely be adapted to different circumstances.
  • When engaging with emerging technologies it’s important to engage with community members who find their day-to-day lives affected early on in an organized way and build a set of principles to guide interaction. Metrics also guide what is viewed as success and should be revisited periodically.The earlier stakeholders can be engaged on a topic, the better. Protocols should be outlined based on what makes sense for a situation. Milestones are also important to gauge progress on a topic and to make sure that community needs and desires are being met. Sharing data and also safe-guarding data so it cannot be used for abusive ends is also of the utmost importance.
  • Experiences matter. Narratives help share what those experiences are like and build support.
    Whether you’re sharing a story to motivate people to action or trying to get people onboard with a new ground-breaking technology, narratives have power and are key for building support. Social media is also key for sharing short snippets of information. Communication can also help people realize viable options they have available to them that aren’t immediately apparent. Community workshops are a great way to also familiarize government and community organizations with new technology and means of collaborating. Additionally, narratives can be to the detriment of a topic if reality doesn’t bear the claims made in the initial attention-grabbing story, but over time that can also trend towards development of an even more powerful narrative in the right cases.
    For example, the impact on accessibility has long been a selling point with AVs, however when it has come to execution there have often been issues with wheelchair accessibility for service providers and ADA compliant vehicles. Wheelchair accessibility may have not always been given the priority it should have been, but correcting that narrative and overcoming that obstacle has become an important and powerful part of the narrative for the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories, where a team of researchers where roughly a quarter have a disability of some type have been successfully pursuing grants to develop products and services in the AV space. With dedication and resources, a story of co opting can become one of self-determinism where autonomous technology can drive human autonomy.
  • While robotics have long been a growing field in the region, that growth has been much more intense in the past few years and over time that growth is likely to be that much more impactful if we can create narratives with equity at the center.
    To quote panelist Michel Conklin “whether people who live here know it or not, Pittsburgh is considered the robotics Capital of the world.” While investments in the region that took place have laid the groundwork for sustained growth for decades, this story isn’t always known. In the past few years as word of these successes has led to increased investment and organization of an educational pipeline has occurred which promises future growth. Building narratives around the topic and centering equity in those narratives will help ensure that as we see growth in technology and robotics that those benefits reach all neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.
  • As an old city Pittsburgh has a variety of infrastructure issues that present an opportunity to incorporate technologies that can improve existing processes
    After experiencing the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, Alessandro Fascetti’s team at Pitt used a prototype drone designed in-house to monitor progress in a novel way and drive research in an emerging field. PGH Lab has also helped to provide an incubator for developing services that drives innovation towards purposes and needs communities would like to address. Further communication, identification of problems and mobilization would help continue to fuel purpose-driven innovation.
  • Pittsburgh is increasingly a tech hub with an emphasis on ethical tech, but we’re not all the way there yet. Promoting principles like universal design is important to getting there to make sure that everyone is able to have access to opportunities.
    Pittsburgh is a knowledge powerhouse with its universities and its research can be powerful tools in shifting perspectives and actions. We see a lot of progress in getting people out of cars but at the same time still struggle with accessibility for all. We still have major gaps for our most vulnerable road users. By improving design to accommodate people with disabilities we can improve opportunities for all. We shouldn’t tolerate bad design just because it doesn’t impede us. Universal design is just good design. An expensive piece of disability tech is likely to still be out of reach of the desired population, so good design should be given a higher priority than a flashy tech intervention. Community organizations focusing on rights for people with disabilities should be consulted on major projects and collaborations with university partners pursuing research and development in this space should be sought out to ensure the public response is adequate.
  • Regardless of an individual’s education level, technical education and training is of the utmost importance and an area that sees a high return on investment.
    Organizations like SWPA Bots IQ and Pittsburgh Robotics Network are building connections for people in tech. Educational organizations like SWPA Bots IQ have been working to connect students across fifteen counties in the region with tools and hands-on activities to build confidence at an early age while providing opportunities to learn and build skills for the future. Students can also benefit from physical or virtual tools. There’s been an uptick in growth of organizations that network and mobilize tech professionals, but this is still an area ripe for growth. Merely building connections would go a long way, building mentoring relationships between successful outfits and up and coming entrants goes that much further.
  • Labor and innovation don’t need to be at odds. Pittsburgh’s legacy involves both and its most successful periods have been when the two worked in concert.
    There are a number of jobs that have trouble hiring due to grueling physical requirements that can have an effect on a worker’s quality of life. User-focused design work that builds off of industrial capacity is ideal because work can be beneficial for a tech company as well as the worker by improving processes like bending or placing rebar or by reducing fatigue of industrial workers with the use of tools like exoskeletons. Innovative technologies benefit from user feedback during the design process and workers are able to have a higher output with a higher level of precision of competing with innovative technologies that aim to replicate the lowest acceptable quality of work.
Decorative image of building containing words to describe Pittsburgh

How Will This Impact Future Engagement?

Attendees and other stakeholders expressed interest in staying engaged. In response, the Autonomous and Shared Mobility Working Group will be revived but with a pivot towards broader engagement regarding emerging transportation technologies and technology promoting safety and accessibility . Previous ASM working groups were held remotely due to the pandemic, with engagement dropping off over time. In response to in-person restrictions being lifted and the decrease in engagement, a hybrid model encouraging in-person engagement will be pursued.

Pittsburgh drafted its AV principles when the AV industry was experiencing unprecedented growth. Since projections expected the trajectory of development to go differently it makes sense to re-address the topic now with stakeholders at the table, some of whom were involved in the creation of the original document. Additionally, by engaging with stakeholders in the development of problem statements it's possible to receive guidance for existing and upcoming projects. By engaging with local industry and universities there’s an opportunity to develop shovel-ready project concepts around the goals and interest of stakeholders while also using grant funds to defray the impact on capital budgets.

The work of the working group will include:

  • drafting an update to Pittsburgh’s AV Principles that reflects where Pittsburgh is now with regards to parameters and goals of the current administration
  • developing problem statements for stakeholder-driven guidance on engagement with emerging technologies
  • collecting input and driving engagement to help create
  • other topics of interest, based on a survey sent to meeting attendees in follow-up correspondence

Pittsburgh has a unique opportunity with the placement of industry and the presence of local talent at universities. Receiving that expert input is crucial to making sure that the priorities accurately reflect our constituency’s needs. A survey was generated using the discussions of the various panels, input from this will help to ensure that priorities and discussions are relevant to stakeholders so our engagement functions as a developmental conversation. This input will create additional value for the City of Pittsburgh’s Complete Streets Plan and further drive PGH Lab incubator development.


The Winding Path of Autonomous Vehicle Technologies

Identifying Community Needs to Avoid Technology for Technology's Sake

Matching Community Need with Innovative Impact

Audience Interviews