How Colorado Is Trying to Stay Ahead of Evolving Transportation Technology

Motorists head southbound on Interstate 25 to downtown Denver.

Motorists head southbound on Interstate 25 to downtown Denver. David Zalubowski / AP Photo


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The state understands it can’t hope to outpace Silicon Valley, but it can outpace other states in adopting autonomous vehicles and hyperloop.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper proclaimed Dec. 4 “Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Day,” a symbolic gesture of the state’s serious effort to adopt transportation technologies at a breakneck pace.

Panasonic, which pivoted from its Asian market to a 400-acre campus near Denver International Airport in August 2016, signed its largest-ever connected vehicle agreement with the Colorado Department of Transportation the same year and wants to have the requisite data ecosystem in place in the next two to three years.

CDOT is also courting a more formal partnership with Hyperloop One, the tube-based high-speed transport system being promoted by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Turning that vision into a reality requires new infrastructure. While the agency wants to begin construction on a Hyperloop line by 2021, that’s a lofty goal considering it took the state 14 years to plan highway improvements through central Denver.

“Government is not always known for being a speedy entity,” Amy Ford, CDOT communications director, told Route Fifty in a phone interview. “But our goal is to move at the speed of Silicon Valley and these technologies.”

The AV legislation Colorado lawmakers passed, plus the governor and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock getting stakeholders to the table, incentivized Panasonic’s informal partnership with CDOT, the agency’s two-year-old RoadX program and the Regional Transportation District. Together they’ve outlined projects, bridged the gap with motor and tech companies, and implemented the state’s first microgrid and smart street light installations in the first year.

Informal relationships allow the private sector to prove its latest technologies while creating a testing and deployment environment in Colorado.

“We seek those partnerships because we know we are not technologists,” Ford said.

RoadX was established to harness innovative transportation technologies to holistically combat the state’s biggest mobility challenges: connections, moving goods and services and long-term sustainability.

Having an autonomous truck make a 132-mile beer run on Interstate 25 might seem like a gimmick, but it’s spurred development of autonomous impact protection vehicles to take the impact of cars in construction zones—without risking a driver’s life. In that way, it was another step toward improved safety and quality of experience.

Connected vehicles talk to each other and the infrastructure they traverse, which means the data ecosystem needs capacity never before seen, Ford said. A Tesla vehicle creates 1 gigabyte of data every second, so a single section of one highway lane could generate between 1.8 million and 2 million data points in an hour.

Next year, Colorado’s spark-powered lane project will small-scale test inductive charging in roadways, Ford said, embedding coils that will charge the retrofitted batteries of vehicles that drive over them.

With Hickenlooper’s announcement also came news that Easymile, a French company developing autonomous shuttle vehicles, had just colocated with Panasonic near RTD’s commuter rail line to Denver International Airport. The company plans to deploy an autonomous shuttle next spring along a short route connecting the 61st and Peña Station with local buses along Tower Road. The aim is to prove that autonomous tech can help ease first- and last-mile “pain points” in the Denver area.

“The use case is there,” said Jarrett Wendt, Panasonic’s executive vice president of strategic innovations, in a phone interview. “But the congestion, or the optics of having something crowded and lots of pedestrians, is low.”

The plan is to expand the autonomous shuttle service elsewhere in the Denver area—Panasonic has identified 17 possible first- and last-mile sites. There are still challenges to work out, like fare collection, so the implementation of autonomous shuttles will be proven in a piecemeal fashion.

“There are a disproportionate amount of use cases from a developers standpoint,” Wendt said.

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Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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