Building the Autonomous Ecosystem

by Eng Seng Loh, PhD

A platform for autonomous mobility technology testing and research will create a new economic growth driver for Greater Peoria.

Above: Bobby Hambrick, founder and CEO of AutonomouStuff, and Dr. Eng Seng Loh with one of the company’s Automated Research Development Vehicles. AutonomouStuff’s Platform Selector Guide allows anyone to configure their own customized, fully-integrated autonomous vehicle for research purposes.

The future of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) is rapidly approaching. Already, many cities in the United States are actively testing driverless cars in their streets. Ford, GM and other manufacturers are looking to deploy CAVs to rideshare companies like Uber, Lyft and Waymo to carry passengers in the coming years. 

The amount of money spent developing this technology is large and growing rapidly. Investment in CAVs and related technology reached a cumulative total of $80 billion globally by the middle of 2017, according to the Brookings Institution. By 2023, another $61 billion is expected to be spent on various autonomous technologies, according to a study published in June 2018 by AlixPartners, the global consulting firm.

The race to develop CAVs will also accelerate commercial development of Internet of Things (IoT)-related technologies in natural language processing, image recognition and more. The introduction of connected autonomous technology is the most disruptive change in the transportation sector in many decades. How can Peoria and the surrounding region play in this rapidly growing space? 

Local Assets for Autonomous Technology Development
Greater Peoria is home to some key players in developing CAVs. Large companies like Caterpillar and Komatsu have successfully deployed fleets of autonomous mining vehicles that are more productive than their manned counterparts. These autonomous trucks have operated safely and reliably in their customers’ mining sites for many years. 

Smaller companies like AutonomouStuff provide components and vehicles that enable their customers to enter the CAV industry, while engineering companies like Integris provide technology and services to support AutonomouStuff and other manufacturers. In addition, there is a large base of engineering talent in the region—including both students and practitioners, many of whom are deeply experienced in the technology—to support growth in this space. 

Finally, we have users who are interested in exploring applications of autonomous technology. OSF and UnityPoint, for instance, are experimenting with new ways of delivering healthcare to their patients that cost less and deliver better outcomes. Autonomous vehicles could be part of the solution.

The time is right for a coordinated move into CAVs for other reasons as well. On October 25, 2018, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner issued an Executive Order (2018-13) creating the “Autonomous Illinois” initiative to promote the development, testing and deployment of CAV technologies and related infrastructure. It establishes the Autonomous Illinois testing program that will facilitate legal testing and programs in the state under a multi-departmental team comprised of the Illinois Department of Transportation, Department of Commerce, Department of Information and Technology, and the Illinois State Police. 

Peoria’s Autonomous Mobility Initiative 
A planning team comprised of representatives from Bradley University, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, Tri-County Regional Planning Commission and the Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association has been meeting since May 2018 to create the Peoria autonomous mobility initiative. Two large public meetings were held in September and October including stakeholders from universities, companies, nonprofit entities, think tanks, consultancies, city and state agencies, state representatives and other government officials. 

These working meetings resulted in a consensus on directions and actions. The smaller planning team held weekly sessions to develop the mission and vision and implement critical tasks identified in the public meetings. In the near term, the planning team is working on the following key actions:

  1. Identify the appropriate form of legal structure that will house the Peoria autonomous mobility initiative, incorporate and “stand up” the legal entity. The name chosen for this entity is Nexmobi.
  2. Clarify the framework for ownership and sharing of data from the autonomous vehicle environment in a manner that encourages growth and participation by new users, while protecting privacy and preserving the commercial potential for existing users in the environment.
  3. Create a “digital twin” of the physical road infrastructure and surrounding environment in Greater Peoria that enables autonomous vehicles to operate while allowing for increased road safety, improved delivery of city services, and more precise and efficient planning.
  4. Find partners interested in testing CAV technologies in Peoria so we can implement the system of systems to enable the safest and most efficient CAV mobility network. We will also identify other potential business-use cases of this newly interconnected mobility system and users to come into the environment.

In the long term, the planning team’s vision is to create a new economic growth driver for Peoria and the surrounding region—built on a burgeoning ecosystem of companies that consist of both users and developers of CAV technology. 

A Platform for Growth
As we build this platform for autonomous mobility technology testing and research, users will invest in testing commercial propositions of value to them. These users create jobs for high-value tech and engineering talents to work on these projects. They also create opportunities to partner with nearby universities to train and develop new generations of tech and engineering talent. The use of the platform will also likely identify new technical and commercial issues and problems that must be resolved. Some of these issues and problems will have significant future commercial value around which new startups can be created. In turn, new startups attract funders and associated support services. 

The growth of a robust, interconnected ecosystem of autonomous mobility technology companies will also spur development of other innovation clusters centered around regional strengths in agricultural research, healthcare and manufacturing. 

We are excited to start out with the initial baby steps that we are taking. It is a journey of millions of miles and many decades. But it is a journey well worth taking. iBi

Eng Seng Loh, PhD, is founder and CEO of Certus Strategies.