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Autonomous vehicles drive investment to Pittsburgh, but companies say government buy-in is key

A Ford/Argo AI self-driving vehicle on Mar. 3, 2022 in Pittsburgh.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
A Ford/Argo AI self-driving vehicle on Mar. 3, 2022 in Pittsburgh

While the autonomous vehicle and robotics sector accounts for the bulk of venture capital invested in southwestern Pennsylvania in recent years, self-driving technology executives say government backing is also critical to the region's competitiveness.

In addition to seeking state and federal funding, sector leaders continue to call on Pennsylvania lawmakers to ease restrictions on driverless vehicle testing. Today, state law prohibits the vehicles’ use without a human present in the driver's seat.

“It's kind of strange. We're like, ‘Aren’t we supposed to be the place that's supposed to be this hub of self-driving technology?’” Argo AI co-founder and president Peter Rander said.

He spoke during a panel discussion the Pittsburgh Robotics Network hosted Thursday at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side. His Pittsburgh-based company develops software for autonomous vehicles, and its highest-profile investors include Ford and Volkswagen.

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A bill pending in the state legislature would allow companies to test the vehicles without a driver present. Pennsylvania officials, including State Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian and Gov. Tom Wolf, have said they are working with the autonomous tech industry to develop safety protocols for testing.

Despite existing regulatory hurdles, the autonomous vehicle and robotics sector attracted 72% of venture investment raised by Pittsburgh tech firms between 2019 and 2021, according to a report from last month. The research found that the sector's funding during that three-year period amounted to $5.5 billion locally. Innovation Works, a Pittsburgh-based startup investment and services organization, published the study in collaboration with accounting and consulting firm Ernst and Young.

“Autonomous vehicles have been leading investments [locally],” Pittsburgh Robotics Network executive director Joel Reed noted. “And much of that has come from either partnerships or joint ventures or direct investments from the automakers from across the world. So that includes Volkswagen Hyundai, Toyota, [General Motors], Ford and others.”

“Having machines operate themselves in unstructured environments really … presents many technical challenges,” Reed added. “So there's a great deal of investment into developing these core technologies that is required.”

In addition to Rander, Thursday's forum included Aurora co-founder and president Chris Urmson, Locomation co-founder and CEO Çetin Meriçli, Motional's vice president of technical programs, Balajee Kannan, and Waymo's head of perception, Kevin Peterson.

Like Argo, Aurora and Locomation are headquartered in Pittsburgh. Motional is based in Boston and Waymo in Mountain View, Calif., although both companies have offices in Pittsburgh.

On Thursday, the tech executives attributed southwestern Pennsylvania's strength in driverless vehicles to its high concentration of robotics workers.

Robotics companies in the region now employ 7,000 people, new figures from the Pittsburgh-based Regional Industrial Development Corporation show. The organization’s president, Don Smith, said more than 100 firms work in the sector locally.

While the regional labor pool explains the presence of autonomous tech companies in Pittsburgh, the speakers at Thursday’s event said their success depends on continued workforce development.

Beyond high-tech workers, they said their businesses depend on a range of technical and service jobs such as accounting, vehicle testing and manufacturing.

Aurora's Urmson said the industry has ample room to grow. He likened today’s self-driving cars to the Model T, which Henry Ford began to sell more than a century ago.

“It's not the time to kind of take the foot off the gas and kind of pat ourselves on the shoulders that things are great,” he said. “It's like this is the time to continue pushing hard to make sure that this happens here [in Pittsburgh] and enables it.”