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Commerce secretary signals feds could invest in Pittsburgh’s bid to become self-driving powerhouse

US EU Trade
Rebecca Droke
Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo answers media questions at the end the first day of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council meetings at the Hazelwood Green Mill 19 building, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Pittsburgh.

As trade and technology talks between the U.S. and the European Union came to a close in Pittsburgh Thursday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said EU leaders left the city "blown away by what they saw.”

“Anyone who comes to Pittsburgh and sees it, it's not just one robotics company. It's not just that [Carnegie Mellon University] is here. It's a vibrant and deep ecosystem of technology innovation,” Raimondo told reporters.

She spoke at North Side-based Astrobotic, a space robotics firm that was founded in 2007 by researchers at Carnegie Mellon.

The gathering of world leaders this week in Pittsburgh marked the first meeting of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, which formed in June. Raimondo and Trade Representative Katherine Tai led the U.S. delegation and were joined by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The council convened at Hazelwood Green on Wednesday. The two powers agreed to continue discussing a range of topics, including technology standards, climate change, tariffs and tensions with China.

Raimondo said she chose Pittsburgh as the meeting site to highlight the city's technology sector.

“I am a believer in how unbelievably innovative, productive and leading-edge that Pittsburgh is," she said.

Pittsburgh has become a center for the autonomous mobility sector, thanks largely to technological breakthroughs at local universities. Today, the region is home to about 70 firms or corporate divisions that specialize in autonomous systems such as those found in self-driving cars, according to a recent study.

Local business leaders have proposed investing more than $150 million in public and private funds to facilitate further growth of the sector.

Raimondo voiced support for that strategy Thursday, and she noted that her agency could kick in some of the money: This summer, the commerce department launched a $1 billion competition for regions that seek to become industry hubs. Individual regions could win up to $100 million.

“Pittsburgh would, I think, have an excellent story to tell, that you ought to be an … autonomous mobility tech hub,” she said.

Raimondo noted that autonomous tech companies could help to create jobs throughout the region’s economy by, for example, using local manufacturers for parts.

“And so [President Joe Biden is] calling for big investments in apprenticeships, job training, investments in tech hubs where we pull together innovations coming out of colleges and universities and turn them into products that we make in America, which is what you are doing here in Pittsburgh,” Raimondo said.

Whether that funding materializes could depend on the fate of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill pending before Congress. Democrats remain divided over the cost of the legislation, which seeks to strengthen the social safety net.

President Biden originally included funding for workforce training in his $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. But the Senate scrapped those provisions when it passed the bill in August.

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