City officials unveiled project plans to begin construction of an autonomous vehicle test track on Technology Parkway at a press conference on Wednesday.
Mayor Mike Mason and representatives from engineering consulting firms Atkins, Partnership Gwinnett and Prototype Prime announced the approval of a 1.4-mile driverless shuttle test track that will run from Peachtree Parkway to Spalding Drive on a dedicated, bi-directional lane along the north side of Technology Parkway.
“The primary purpose of this is economic development, [is] to spur development within Tech Park, to create that vertical within our incubator that is specified within this type of technology,” said City Manager Brian Johnson. He explained further, creating an ecosystem with this type of emerging technology could be the city playing their part in getting autonomous vehicle technology off the ground and widely used in other cities.
The city council approved the plans Tuesday night and hopes to have the vehicle lane functioning in a year, although no contractor has been chosen to provide the vehicle yet.
“The goal for this project is economic development that is centered around future technology,” said Mason. “The city’s startup incubator, Prototype Prime, will be a catalyst in attracting ancillary companies by offering a testing site for new AV-related technology.”
The project, named the Programmed Autonomous Vehicle Environment, will begin construction in the near future and run from Spalding Drive, near Norcross High School, and Peachtree Parkway, where the Atlanta Marriott Peachtree Corners is located.
“Our hope is that as this thing takes off, people looking at where to go in this technology ecosystem say ‘wait, there’s space in Tech Park right on a test track,'” City Manager Brian Johnson said at the city council meeting Tuesday.
Although the track will be capable of carrying a small number of passengers, the purpose is ultimately to draw in more business for the city and act as a testing site for emerging transportation technology.
“What we really want is for companies to come here,” said Mason. “To start their businesses, pay business license fees, move their families here, for them to buy houses, when the millennials grow up they start families, and the cycle begins.”
City officials are not counting out the possibility that the test route could be expanded in the future if the project goes well, connecting certain shopping areas to hotels for quick and easy access.
“The beauty here about this corridor is, geographically speaking, [the corridor] could grow into becoming a part of a loop that could connect two areas that are significant to us,” said Johnson. “This corridor can be used as an expansion of that, but right now we don’t have a ridership demand that’s clamoring to get from one end of Tech Park to the other.”
The two million dollar budget would include features such as shuttle stops, flexible bollards to separate the lane from regular traffic, pavement markings and additional crosswalks and sidewalks. It would also cover a resurfacing of the road, which city officials said would need to be done in the future regardless of the project.
“When you look at the costs, there are a couple of different components,” City Councilman Eric Christ said. “One is the shuttle itself — and we’re still issuing [requests] and trying to determine what the perfect shuttle is … If you set aside the shuttle costs, it’s about $1.4 million of infrastructure to build the track essentially on the road.”
The funding for the project would come from the city’s general fund or even potentially be eligible to come from SPLOST, but city officials said it is still too early in the development to be decided.
The city is looking to find a more niche market in the technology category, and are hoping that the autonomous vehicle program draws in specialized tech companies to further economic growth.
“We’ve been looking for a specific genre within the technology world for us to stay in theme,” said Johnson. “There’s an opportunity here to both create something that people will be looking at and saying ‘wow we’re going to be right outside,’ where there’s at least a track set up specifically for autonomous vehicle… where the companies can test speaker systems, radars, or small components.”
The city, which is already known as being an innovative tech hub with its cutting-edge Smart Cities Technology, plans on using the project to keep up their image as a tech-forward city and draw in more startup, technology, and fortune 500 companies.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with companies, fortune 500 companies, who have their finger in this,” said Johnson. “Where I’m at is, I’ve gotten them as far as they can without us doing anything official yet.”
City officials also spoke about potentially negotiating leasing out the autonomous vehicles to keep up with the pace of the quickly-developing technology, but they would not know the terms until after publishing a request for a proposal.
“The more flexibility we have, the better, given how fast the pace of technology is changing,” said Alex Wright, city councilman. “We don’t want to be stuck with a shuttle that is outdated twelve months from now.”
Prototype Prime will work with the project by launching an Advanced Vehicle Accelerator and will also partner with Tech Connect Hub to help with connecting research and startup communities with corporate partners.
“Implementing this project proves that smaller cities can move quickly and are more nimble in responding to opportunities such as the launch of our autonomous vehicle project,” said Mayor Mike Mason. “As we grow, we will always be exploring and investing in more ways for improving economic development for our city.”
A similar project was launched in Atlanta in September of 2017, but Peachtree Corners officials have stated it is the first project of its kind outside of the metro-Atlanta area.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting time,” said Sanjay Parekh, Prototype Prime Co-Founder, and Executive Director. “A lot of people are thinking about what we’re doing here, but I think it’s going to be interesting [during] this initial part, and then as we’re moving forward into the future in 2019, I think you’re going to see a lot of great things happen.”
Rebecca Washney is a freelance journalist and fiction writer. She grew up in McDonough, reading, writing and reporting before moving to Kennesaw to continue her education. Rebecca earned an associate’s degree in health and human performance from South Georgia State College and is currently finishing her bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University. Rebecca plans on attending graduate school for fiction writing and pursuing a career in journalism.