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Austin officials rap about Smart Cities, robot cars at SXSW

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Nine months after Austin lost the federal Smart City Challenge to Columbus, Ohio, the vision of a data-enhanced urban future is still alive and well. Top officials from Mayor Steve Adler to Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar took time during South by Southwest 2017 to publicly address the city’s efforts to leverage data collection into more efficient policies, particularly in the realm of transportation. “We truly believe that Austin, Texas, is one of those places where good ideas come to be real,” Adler told dozens of people gathered at an event at Empire Control Room put on by autonomous vehicle consulting company the C3 Group. The daylong Mobility Showcase featured companies such as Chariot and Ford and speakers such as Austin Chamber of Commerce Regional Mobility Director Andy Cantu.

Also in attendance was Spillar, who had just held forth at the Hilton during a panel discussion entitled “Smart Cities Sound Off: The Future of Transportation.” He talked about the competition for a $50 million prize that the U.S. Department of Transportation co-sponsored last year. He explained that his biggest surprise in the effort was the positive response from the private sector. “We don’t have a big history here in Austin of foundations or Fortune 500-type companies leading our social way, so it was really refreshing to see that,” Spillar noted.

He said that one of the current problems with transportation policy-making is the “balkanization” among city, regional and state jurisdictions. “By creating an urban transportation department, which is I think part of a Smart City, it puts the city, especially the central city, back in the focus of the regional debate on mobility. Which is really important if we’re going to have healthier, more people-centric systems,” Spillar said. He also suggested that the city could take over control of the Texas Department of Transportation-owned roads that will benefit from the $720 million bond that voters approved last November. He said that the city ownership would allow more flexibility to deploy the sensors and other technological devices that are necessary for Smart City data collection.

“I think that’s really important because our goal is to generate economic development in these corridors,” said Spillar. Addressing autonomous vehicles, Spillar outlined two separate paths. One, he said, is a future in which consumers simply replace their current vehicles with AVs, a small break from the status quo. “So if that becomes easy, we see cities continue to suburbanize, forcing people of lower incomes to seek residential locations that they can afford, which often is where less services are,” Spillar predicted. “A bad future.” The second alternative, he said, would see fleets of AVs patrolling cities for on-demand service. That vision aligns with a recent resolution passed by City Council directing city staff to prepare for such an outcome.

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