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Obama Praises Pittsburgh's Tech Boom During Frontiers Conference Visit

The National Department of Transportation announced Thursday that Pittsburgh had received an $11 million grant for advanced technology transportation projects. The announcement was made shortly before Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in a panel discussion during the White House Frontiers Conference at Carnegie Mellon University.

Foxx said it’s important that Pittsburgh uses technology to solve transportation issues. 

“You here in Pittsburgh, you’ve got some highly congested roads,” he said. “There are technologies that can help with that including advanced technology to improve signalization so that signals are coordinated better.”

The grant is built off of the Smart City’s Challenge – which Pittsburgh competed for but did not receive. The advanced technology transportation grant will be used to develop smart traffic signal technology, which the Department of Transportation said could reduce congestion at street lights by up to 40 percent.

Some of those technologies are already being implemented in East Liberty. Carnegie Mellon University’s Intelligent Coordination and Logistics Laboratory has developed smart traffic signals that not only identify when and how many vehicles are present, but also communicate with each other to maximize efficiency in traffic flow.

Director Stephen Smith said Port Authority buses will soon be equipped with short-range communication devices that will share routes with the traffic signal network. Smith said similar devices will start to be installed in some consumer vehicles next year.

“If a vehicle is willing to share its route with the intersection, we can get it through the network much faster than otherwise,” he said. “Moreover, we can do it without any adverse effect to other vehicles.”

Foxx said it’s this kind of innovation that won Pittsburgh the advanced technology transportation grant.

“I love seeing cities reinvent themselves and re-imagine the future. And not just imagine it but take tangible steps to move forward,” Foxx said.

Foxx said it was also part of the reason President Obama selected Pittsburgh as the site of the first ever Frontiers Conference – exploring five frontiers of innovation, Personal, local, national, global and interplanetary – co-hosted by the White House, CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.

“It’s another statement of the kind of innovation happening here in the area,” he said.

Researchers in Pittsburgh are thinking about how to get people not only across town more efficiently, but also across the solar system.

President Barack Obama wrote in an op-ed on CNN.com on Tuesday that he wants to see humans on Mars by the mid-2030s, with the “ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

Obama said such an initiative will require continued cooperation between government, research institutions and the private sector and technologies developed in Pittsburgh are on track to help make that a reality.

One of the biggest problems for scientists is figuring out where humans would live on Mars. CMU robotics professor Red Whittaker told an audience at the Frontiers Conference that caves could be a suitable habitat.

“Some of the challenges for human presence are hot and cold, radiation, micro meteorites. One ready-to-go solution could be the subterranean existence,” he said. “As humans we were cave people at one time, it’s not a bad way to go.”

Whittaker said we can test out this idea using lunar caves, and that whether on the moon or on Mars, initial exploration will likely be done by robots controlled by humans back on Earth.

In a speech Thursday afternoon, Obama praised Pittsburgh for being a city that revitalized through technology.

He said what’s happening in Pittsburgh is happening throughout the country. He reflected on advances made during his tenure, but called the presidency a relay race. He said the first-ever Frontiers Conference is important in institutionalizing the innovative work happening in Pittsburgh and the country to be able to hand off to the next administration.

“Innovation is not a luxury we do away with when we’re tightening our belts,” he said. “It’s precisely those moments when we’ve got real challenges when we double down on new solutions that can lead to new jobs and new jobs and new industries and a stronger economy.”

Obama told the crowd of scientists, innovators, engineers, educators and entrepreneurs the future is theirs to create. 

“You’re transforming the way we treat disease, building smarter and more efficient and more inclusive communities, you’re unlocking the data that can make our criminal justice system more smarter and fair.”

He told them he has, “No doubt we’re going to be able to make enormous strides and amazing possibilities are ahead of us.” 

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.
Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.