Pittsburgh is a town known more for steel mills and football fans than high tech, despite the presence of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), but it is busy positioning itself on the cusp of smart city technology.

The city has partnered with Uber on its self-driving pilot and it’s working on smart traffic lights thanks to $10.9 million in funding from the US Department of Transportation (DoT) as part of the DoT’s $165 million latest funding round for smart city projects. Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto has high hopes that a full conversion to a smart city will happen sooner rather than later, and he’s taking steps to make that happen, despite joking that self-driving cars could be what keeps him from getting re-elected.

“The next generation of urban mobility will take hold … The technology has been here for a while, and it’s being implemented around the world,” Peduto said.

SEE: The world’s smartest cities: What IoT and smart governments will mean for you (TechRepublic)

Partnering with CMU has its benefits

Pittsburgh is the home for CMU and it has helped with the push to add new technology. Pittsburgh is partnering with the university to serve as an urban lab for CMU’s research and development. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between CMU and the city serves as a formal partnership to allow CMU to try new tech around Pittsburgh without undergoing a lengthy approval process, similar to how the city is able to send maintenance crews out to do small projects without first seeking funding, Peduto explained.

“I can patch potholes by utilizing staff, and I can utilize Carnegie Mellon without having to go through an RFP [Request for Proposal] process to test technology in the city,” Peduto said.

The city has sensors on its streets that were first used to track snowplows, and then it moved into the next generation of smart traffic signals. The $10.9 million from the DoT will be used to expand the use of smart traffic signals, Peduto said.

“It’s a CMU-based company that is able to create traffic signals that use radar and sensors to know real time how far back traffic is queued and then create algorithms so that everything can move more efficiently. It’s been proven to make traffic move 31% better. The signals talk to each other, and they have the ability to learn where heavy traffic periods happen. We’re going to take that through a much larger scale throughout all of our major corridors,” Peduto said.

Opting for self-driving cars with Uber

The city started working with Uber 20 months ago to put self-driving cars on the streets and make Pittsburgh a global autonomous vehicle center. In the next few years, the sensors from those vehicles will be able to communicate with smart traffic signals. The partnership has created more than 600 jobs, and by next year there will be more than 1,000 people employed as part of the autonomous driving initiative. “Uber’s investment in Pittsburgh will likely exceed $1 billion without them asking for a dollar of government money,” he said.

Peduto said Uber chose Pittsburgh in part because it offered “green light governing” where it was easier to implement technology. “It comes from a belief that innovation will always come before regulation,” he said, explaining that regulations on airlines didn’t come until decades after the Wright brothers designed the first airplane, and that it took many years for automobile regulations to surface after the debut of the car.

SEE: Uber’s driverless rides in Pittsburgh: What’s happening and what it means (TechRepublic)

“Safety is essential, and basic regulation through conversations and meetings with experts in the field, but then you allow the innovation to take hold and allow the city to become an urban lab and from that you see progress,” he said.

“That’s the same as when this country moved away from having elevator operators, and people could push their own buttons. There were people who could not ride their own elevator without the safety of having the operator there,” he said.

Peduto said he thinks autonomous driving will make the roads safer.

“We have come to accept that 1.2 million people each year on this earth are killed by automobile-related accidents, and the vast majority [of those accidents is the result of] human error, and we assume and accept that number. We can drastically reduce those numbers, but you have to take the first few steps. It doesn’t become 100% safe automatically. You have to be able to provide the opportunity for innovation to take hold,” he emphasized.

Giving the green light to innovation

Peduto said he didn’t want Pittsburgh to miss out on the opportunity to be part of this groundbreaking moment in technology.

“I think that with the technology that we’re seeing today, it’s not a matter of if, it’s more a matter of when, and if you wait to have 100% of regulations in place, it just assures it’s going to happen somewhere else whether that’s Singapore or Europe or somewhere else in Asia, and those industries of tomorrow will be located in those areas. The US has always led the world in innovation and it’s because it’s always had a good balance between innovation and regulation.”

Peduto said he thinks smaller municipalities are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the smart city opportunities out there right now, even more so than large, global cities. He said Bogota, Colombia, is an innovation center right now with transportation technology.

“I think that it’s because of the scale that cities like those are literally able to get things done because they aren’t that big and at the same time the world takes notice. Whether it’s Louisville [Ky.] or Austin or Columbus, Ohio, where this great innovation is becoming transformational is in the mid-sized cities.”

SEE: Louisville and the Future of the Smart City (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

Using renewable energy in Pittsburgh

The next step for Pittsburgh is combining the future of urban mobility with renewable energy.

“For an area that is fueled by coal and nuclear, we want to be able to create micro-districts in the city. We want to be able to fuel the city with renewable energy and transform from natural gas to renewable. Some of the micro-districts will be based upon a natural gas system that in the future will go to renewable. Others will be strictly renewable. We will tie those into transportation corridors and the shift to electric vehicles and tie that into IoT systems that allows cars to talk to traffic signals and talk to other cars.”

The city has formed partnerships with county and universities to create an open data platform. Pittsburgh is providing the public with real-time data about crime, emergency calls, building permits, or anything else being measured.

One of the most popular programs has been the snowplow tracker app, which lets residents see if a snowplow has been on their street and their current locations. The next generation of that will include details on what types of treatments were delivered on each street, and if the plow was up or down when it came down the street, he said.

There’s a new project in place that will begin tonight and last through the holidays in Pittsburgh. It’s a temporary art installation on the city’s Rachel Carson Bridge spanning the Allegheny River. The project is a merger of the city’s industrial past with its technologically-based future, as it uses 27,000 multi-colored LED lights powered with wind turbines.

The top 3 takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto is driving the city’s push toward the adoption of smart city technology such as smart traffic lights and self-driving cars.
  2. Pittsburgh received a $10.9 million DoT grant to help fund additional smart traffic lights.
  3. A unique partnership with CMU allows the city to serve as an urban lab for technology innovations.

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