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Is Self-Driving Technology The Best Thing To Hit Pittsburgh Since Steel? Local Business Groups Think So

Rachel Gobep
90.5 WESA
Autonomous mobility has deep roots in Pittsburgh thanks to decades of research at local universities. Major economic development groups in Pittsburgh say the region should spend $154 million to attract more investment in the technology.

Top business and civic leaders in Pittsburgh say decades of local research in autonomous technology could pay off in a big way for the region. But some caution that residents outside the sector must also have a voice if those economic gains are to be shared.

Major economic development groups in Pittsburgh recently released a hefty report that outlines a plan for turning southwestern Pennsylvania into a global powerhouse in the autonomous mobile systems industry. Though it’s best-known for self-driving cars, the market serves a broad swath of industries, ranging from manufacturing to warehousing and agriculture. The industry is projected to grow to more than $1 trillion in the next five years, according to the study.

“This is an opportunity that every industry forecast says is going to be absolutely enormous,” said Don Smith, president of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation. Thanks primarily to discoveries at local universities, he said, “We really are in a stronger position in [this] technology area than we have been [in any other] as long as I've been involved in the region, which dates back to the ‘80s.”

RIDC released the new study with the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. The 150-page document was compiled with participation from local universities and foundations as well as companies active in autonomous technology.

The study calls for $154 million in public and private investment to help Pittsburgh compete in the increasingly crowded autonomous tech sector. About a dozen other metro areas, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, and Detroit, have also gained a solid foothold in the industry, according to the research.

The report recommends that southwestern Pennsylvania form a committee of local corporate, academic, and policy leaders to guide investments needed to provide skilled labor and infrastructure improvements, while also seeking to loosen regulations on testing and deploying new mobile systems.

‘It's not something we're trying to create out of nothing’

If this all sounds familiar, there’s a reason. Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, said groups such as RIDC have launched similar tech-based development initiatives in recent decades. But those efforts, he said, fell short in seeking to transform Pittsburgh into a leading hub for sectors such as microchip manufacturing and biomedical engineering.

“Pittsburgh's on a long road to try and create a technology industry from what has been a tremendous base of academic research,” Briem noted. “It’s been challenged a lot to get that technology into the private sector to grow jobs, and a lot of things haven't quite worked out that well.”

But, he said, autonomous systems offer more promise because much of the underlying technology was born in Pittsburgh and has already helped to fuel local entrepreneurial ventures.

“It's not something we're trying to create out of nothing,” Briem said. “It's really building on past strength that makes this [initiative] hopefully more enduring than others.”

“And I think right now we are seeing some new firms pop up that suggest that we do have the possibility of growing a cluster in these industries,” he added.

The report says the region is home to 71 firms or corporate divisions that specialize in autonomous systems. It notes that Ford and Volkswagen have invested $3.6 billion in Pittsburgh-based Argo AI. Fellow self-driving tech startup Aurora, meanwhile, named Pittsburgh as the site of its corporate headquarters despite also having a significant presence in Silicon Valley.

And the local interest in autonomous technology coincides with a growing federal appetite to invest in tech-based development, said Dan Berglund, president and CEO of State Science & Technology Institute.

Berglund noted that the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is holding a competition to distribute $1 billion to regions that seek to grow their own technology hubs. President Biden's infrastructure spending package, which is pending before Congress, could allocate billions more.

“So there is a more ready pool of federal funding potentially available to support this kind of activity than there's been in the past,” Berglund said. “The federal government's never really done anything like this before.”

Divided highway?

But University of Pittsburgh law professor Mike Madison warns that, while the sector represents a key area of growth, neither it nor its supporters should dominate the discussion about the region’s economic future.

“I don't want to undervalue the contributions of the technology sector,” Madison said. “But this idea that we're somehow competing with other cities for a share of this pie – that's a story that the Chamber of Commerce is telling to help the Chamber of Commerce members.”

In figuring out a regional growth strategy, Madison said, it’s important to “bring people to the conversation from other sectors of the economy who don't have an obvious, self-interested perspective on whether autonomy succeeds or not.”

Madison noted that the business groups’ plan for promoting autonomous tech makes no mention of economic disparities between racial groups in the Pittsburgh area – even though those inequities were thoroughly documented in a landmark study published in 2019. To advance the interests of the community as a whole, Madison said, the region should invest in public infrastructure such as schools, transit, and broadband.

That way, he said, “You've provided a baseline of resources that's very high for everybody potentially to take advantage of.”

“One thing we don't want to do is make some of the same mistakes we made in the past."
Carnegie Mellon University professor Corey Harper

RIDC’s Smith argues that it’s “a false question” to ask if investments in autonomous technologies will come at a cost to those who aren’t part of the industry. “I'm a strong proponent of broad-based infrastructure investment because it improves productivity across the economy.”

Productivity in a single sector, he also noted, can prompt infrastructure development – such as when local road, water, sewer, and transit systems were expanded to serve the steel industry.

“And so, our recommendations for public investment are in the infrastructure to support all companies across this sector, support the workers and the communities that will be benefiting from the opportunity that gets created by [autonomous tech],” Smith said.

He said that because the sector has the potential “to create jobs in every part of the economy,” it could help to advance “equity and inclusion in our region and across the country.”

Smith said the committee that’s overseeing the plan for building out autonomous tech locally has begun to seek more racially diverse members. It’s also engaged union leaders to understand workers’ priorities, Smith said. And he added that elected officials and community groups will help to respond to concerns about diversity, while applications for funding will also require the committee to address the issue.

The technology itself is also relevant, Carnegie Mellon civil and environmental engineering professor Corey Harper noted. And it remains an open question how autonomous vehicles will impact communities, he said. Passengers could use the vehicles as part of a more accessible and efficient transit system – or the vehicles could overcrowd roadways and impede public transportation systems.

“One thing we don't want to do is make some of the same mistakes we made in the past,” Harper said. The interstate highway system, he noted, uprooted entire communities when it cut through predominantly low-income and minority neighborhoods.

This time around, he said, “We want to make sure that we're not … exacerbating social inequalities that already exist in our transportation system. There's a big need for input and engagement from community organizations.”