What City Is the Smartest of All?

January 8, 2016

As automakers add smart features such as collision avoidance and self-driving capabilities to their cars, the U.S. Transportation Department is stepping in with an incentive: The city that best incorporates those features into an "urban mobility" initiative stands to receive a grant of up to $40 million to bring the vision into daily use.

Connected devices, sensors for data collection and automation, and the promise of autonomous cars have the potential to drastically change a city’s transportation landscape in the coming years. The promise sets out to make lives easier and make roads safer and less congested. 

The DOT announced the Smart City Challenge to encourage medium-sized cities to develop guidelines and uses for smart car technology that other areas can adopt. By combining new technologies with established infrastructure and standards, the department hopes to improve local travel and make it safer, easier, and more reliable.

Submissions are due Feb. 4. The winning city will be announced in June and will receive a grant of as much as $40 million. Medium-size American cities — those with fewer than 850,000 people — are eligible to apply. 

The DOT devised the challenge after it issued a report in February 2015 showing that the nation’s aging infrastructure is not equipped to deal with a dramatically growing population and calling for a greater variety of mobility options. Those could include everything from more walkable communities to shared rides or even autonomous vehicles.  

“This is an opportunity for the winning city to define what it means to be  a ‘Smart City’ when it comes to transportation,” says Anthony Foxx, U.S. Transportation Secretary. “We encourage cities to develop their own unique vision, partnerships, and blueprints to demonstrate to the world what a fully integrated, forward-looking transportation network looks like.”

But what does a “smart” city look like? This was a question panelists from leading tech companies, academia, and lawmakers addressed at a Thursday keynote session at CES 2016, “Beyond Smart Cities: The Future of Urban Mobility.” Most of their responses pointed to a future of connected cars that can drive themselves.  

At CES 2016, several automakers are showing off their cars of the future, including some that drive themselves. Autonomous cars are expected to arrive in stages, with autonomous parking predicted to arrive by 2018; autonomous highway driving by 2020; and then city driving by 2030, said Robert Bosch, CEO of Bosch. 

These autonomous vehicles could potentially redefine city living, lending itself to more shared rides and easier commutes with less traffic congestion. But it also could prompt greater urban sprawl too, as residents opt to live even further away from work centers since they could work during their commute. 

“We are at a moment of crossroads where technology and transportation present many opportunities for communities,” Foxx said during the panel. It has the potential to influence land use decisions and urban planning, improve livability, and create safer, cleaner cities. Society is at the cusp of an “amazing technological wave on transportation,” he said.  

By Melissa Dittmann Tracey for REALTOR® Magazine