Knoxville, Tennessee could become America’s next autonomous and connected vehicle testbed, as Pete Spiller reports

Knoxville, Tennessee is poised to become America’s next testbed for autonomous and connected Vehicles. Mayor Madeline Rogero made the announcement after an initial meeting with a group of national transportation leaders. “We’re still very early in this, but we’re going to do our due diligence,” she said.

The idea was an outgrowth of a conversation between city leaders and executives at GRIDSMART Technologies, Inc., the Knoxville-based mobility firm producing cutting edge, single camera intersection and mobility solutions. The idea was further fleshed out during a meeting at the company’s annual INTERSECT gathering, which routinely draws some of America’s leading transportation minds. This year was no exception.

“We knew we were going to have some of the smartest intelligent transportation leaders at INTERSECT,” said GRIDSMART CEO, Bill Malkes, “and it just made sense to tap that brainpower on the viability of building a vehicle testbed right here in Knoxville.” The meeting brought together Knoxville Mayor Rogero, Paul Brubaker, president and CEO of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation (, Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Regina Hopper, president and CEO of ITS America and Malkes, among others. Recognizing the success of similar initiatives in Contra Costa, CA, Ann Arbor, MI and Pittsburgh, PA, the group considered options and obstacles to a testbed in Knoxville. “The region has some really unique features that would appeal to companies and innovators testing self-driving vehicles,” said Brubaker. “These vehicles need to be able to operate safely in all weather conditions and in every terrain. Knoxville has heat, cold, rain and snow and the topography varies between flatland and hills within a few miles. It’s definitely appealing.”

Last month, the US Department of Transportation offered guidance on the research, development and deployment of self-driving vehicles apparently signaling strong support for the life-saving technologies and the INTERSECT gathering showcased many of them. For the first time in the Knoxville region, attendees witnessed and participated in connected-vehicle technology through a series of pedestrian and vehicle-to-vehicle crash avoidance demonstrations co-operated by GRIDSMART and technology developer, DENSO, also with a presence in Tennessee. The US DOT has reported that more than 90 per cent of all traffic crashes involve some element of human error as a cause. Brubaker believes speeding up the process to deployment is critical. “More than 90 people die on America’s roads each day,” he said. “We have to deploy these technologies strategically and safely, but every day it takes has a direct cost in lives.” Last year in the United States, more than 34,000 people died in traffic crashes, the highest total since 2008. In a tragic development, this year is on track to approach 40,000 fatalities.

Before deployment can happen, serious issues have to be addressed and resolved. Right now, there are major issues with cybersecurity that must be overcome. Clearly a safe, connected transportation system must first be as immune to hacking as possible. Driver privacy and individual information must be protected while collecting the data that is critical for a safe system, and overall consistency of vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communication must be assured in order for the system to work every time. Knoxville’s testbed could put the city directly in the epicenter of resolving those issues.  While the region may have a national reputation as a picturesque post-card community with beautiful mountains and incredible colors each Autumn, GRIDSMART CEO Malkes pointed out that the Knoxville area is no rookie as a research community. Citing sophisticated research being done at the University of Tennessee, he added: “We also have Oak Ridge,” referencing the research center just a few miles from GRIDSMART’s headquarters. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the US Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory. It boasts a staff of more than 4500 engineers, scientists and researchers working on some of America’s most pressing and complex energy and material problems. Malkes added: “The future of transportation from intersection management to self-driving vehicles is accelerating daily. If done well, this initiative could bring high-tech companies and new jobs to the region.”

In the last few months, there has been dramatic progress along the road to self-driving vehicles. Rideshare leader Uber recently deployed a fleet of self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, PA. Drivers sit behind the controls but are there only to intervene when necessary, and to reduce possible passenger anxiety. Meanwhile, the company’s self-driving truck startup, OTTO, made a first of its kind 120-mile trip, delivering 45,000 cans of beer from Fort Collins, CO to Colorado Springs. In what must have been an intriguing sight for other motorists on Interstate 25, the “driver” spent most of the trip out of the driver’s seat. The pace of innovation and testing is accelerating, and timing is critical. The Alliance for Transportation Innovation president Brubaker said: “There’s a finite window. Critical decisions are being made about the future of transportation right now and Knoxville is positioned to be part of it.”

Tennessee is one of several states that allows testing on public roads, but the group agreed that rather than establishing the entire city as a testbed, to protect public safety and to address public concern, it could be best to dedicate on-the-road research to specific fenced or geo-fenced areas. But the potential for economic development and high-tech jobs remains a primary driver behind the initiative. Mayor Rogero said it is a regular topic of conversation when she meets with her peers from other cities. “Everything I hear when I go to mayor conferences are that we need to prepare for the technology…We want to be on the front end working with the outstanding companies and research institution right here in our city and region,” she said. The mayor is taking the conversation to heart and next steps are already underway. After the meeting, Mayor Rogero announced plans to establish a working group of city staff, as well as public and private regional partners to consider whether the city should become America’s newest testbed for connected and autonomous vehicles.
Pete Spiller is a partner at High Impact Communications