Ever since Peachtree Corners announced the plans for their 1.4-mile-long autonomous vehicle test track in April, the innovative concept has received both local and national attention. City leaders have learned more about the market and have found other ways Peachtree Corners can help develop new ways to think about transportation.
As the project has grown, City Manager Brian Johnson has found that the research and resources can relate to transportation fields beyond autonomous vehicles. “We’re wanting to create this… advanced vehicle laboratory,” Johnson says, explaining that the this will include innovative ideas and solutions beyond just autonomous vehicles. Because of this broader focus, the city is evolving beyond the “Autonomous Vehicle Project” to focus on “Intelligent Mobility Solutions.”
One opportunity that helped Johnson see how big the market was for this came from a conference at Purdue University in Indiana. Earlier in the year, the University hosted many of the top researchers and developers of the autonomous car industry. Some of the people at the college heard about the work happening in Peachtree Corners, and they personally Johnson to attend the event and speak with some subject matter experts.
Editors Note: The article is based on the recent podcast interview with Brian Johnson (4:12 into the interview)
The people in these fields, Johnson says, are looking for cities to test out a variety of new technology, and Peachtree Corners is near the top of their lists. Right now, there is a section of Interstate 85 between La Grange and the Alabama border with a road that charges electric cars while they drive. Some of the industry leaders at Purdue asked if Peachtree Corners would be interested as well, and while these plans have not been firmly established, Johnson is looking forward to the potential of Peachtree Corners becoming a prime research and development location for the auto industry.
More recently, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce heard about the innovative idea and invited representatives from Peachtree Corners to join them in their delegation for the Smart City Expo in Barcelona, Spain. This invitation does not come easily, though. Before Peachtree Corners, the Chamber only invited two other cities: Atlanta and Alpharetta, both of which already have a large reputation as tech-oriented cities in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area. Peachtree Corners will be sending delegates this month.
The City recognizes its inability to do this project on their own, so they have set up strategic partnerships with tech companies and are hoping for more. “We’re not wanting to be in this arena where we are testing the tech,” says Johnson, “we just want to be a place where people want to come to, be close to, and move to.”
One of their biggest partnerships is with Prototype Prime, an incubator located in Peachtree Corners that helps technology startups get off the ground. Along with Techconnecthub.com and the city, Prototype Prime developed their “Advanced Vehicle Technology Accelerator,” which will help facilitate the vehicle testing and assist in the technical side of things.
They have opened applications to startups who want to utilize the test track and gain insight into the advanced vehicle ecosystem. Fortune 500 companies will also be involved in the Accelerator to collaborate with the startups and help develop the necessary technology. By involving all these outside companies, Prototype Prime will hopefully bring more business to Peachtree Corners and help the city continue to live up to its “innovative and remarkable” motto.
These partnerships with advanced technology professionals have allowed the city to refine some of their original plans. At the beginning of the project, the city wanted a single, bidirectional lane, but after receiving advice from autonomous vehicle professionals, they decided to dedicate two individual lanes alongside each side of the regular road. Many of the companies considering partnership want to use the test-track to gather and analyze data, and Johnson says that “a bidirectional lane would be limiting in and of itself because the data could be corrupted.”
The data they gather can be sold to other technology companies that want to utilize the information as well. This adds another unique layer to the project because the gathered data will be incredibly valuable to tech companies across a multitude of focal points. Part of what attracts so many companies to the project is that the autonomous cars will get a chance to interact with actual traffic and pedestrians on a real road. The autonomous vehicle lanes will be beside the regular road with normal, human-driven vehicles.
Many research and development sites already exist that allow for closed, isolated testing without other cars interfering, but Peachtree Corners will offer companies a chance to test alongside human-driven automobiles in a safe way. “There is some interaction but it’s not at a high rate of speed [and] it’s not in the same lane,” says Johnson, emphasizing the need for a test site that safely allows data gathering in as close to a real-world scenario as possible.
Each autonomous vehicle lane will be clearly marked and closed off to human-driven vehicles. A barrier will be in place for safety, and this separation will especially help when the autonomous vehicles have to turn around to get to their other lane going the opposite direction. To do this, the city will construct a facility that will allow the autonomous vehicles to exit the road and reenter on the other side by merging into the new lane. On the southern end of the road, the autonomous vehicles will use the two hotel parking lots to turn themselves around.
Johnson says that the city will place a significant amount of signage and striping in the areas to make people aware and keep them safe. He says, “we’re going to have gateway signage that says, ‘You are now entering the Peachtree Corners Intelligent Mobility Corridor’ and the colors of the signs will be different,” Everything will look and feel so different when people enter the corridor that Johnson compares the change to entering Disney World. “When you enter Disney World… you feel like you’re in a unique place… That’s what we want.”
Construction is still set to begin in January 2019, and while the price for developing the lane costs nearly $2 million, Johnson says “We’re doing this without going into any debt.” He looks forward to revealing strategic partnering companies in the near future. These partnerships should help offset the cost by including a mixture of direct payment and payment in the form of infrastructure upgrades for the city.
Johnson looks forward to what the future might bring with this project. He hopes for a day where the city can take its hands off and just allow for the space to develop its own theme and niche. With the innovation this test track will provide, Johnson hopes that Peachtree Corners may even become known as a go-to destination for the future of intelligent mobility solutions.
Editors Note: The video below was created with the original intent of a bi-directional track. Since the project has evolved, and with that the location of the turnaround would now be done in the two hotel parking lots on the southern end of the road. In this video, shows a “u” turn that would not occur in the new evolved program.