Cities Further Innovations in Technology

April 5, 2021

Georgia’s cities aren’t sitting on the sidelines when it comes to innovation. Across the state, local leaders are welcoming new technology to help boost their economies and add in-demand resources. Whether it’s using city resources to foster innovation that could have a global impact or providing a solution to a problem caused by new technology, cities are working to stay a step ahead.

Driving into the Future

About 20 miles outside of Atlanta, you’ll find a one-of-a-kind technology incubator. It wasn’t launched by a major corporation or as part of a tech start-up, but with an act of local government.

The city of Peachtree Corners launched plans for an autonomous vehicle test track and research facility in 2016, committing $500,000 in seed funding and annual financial contributions to follow. By the time the 1.5-mile, $2 million test track officially opened in 2019, the city had established partnerships with Sprint (now T-Mobile), Delta Airlines, Georgia Tech and multiple start-ups, all seeking to use the state-of-the-art facility to further research on self-driving cars and wireless communication.

“Curiosity Lab serves a purpose for all levels of companies, from start-ups all the way to Fortune 100 companies, providing that environment where you can test and validate technology in the real world,” said Brandon Branham, Peachtree Corners assistant city manager.

The latest partnership, announced in mid-February, brings Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center and T-Mobile together to create an accelerator program for mobility technology working with a 5G wireless network.

Projects previously tested on the track have included an autonomous shuttle, e-scooters remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away and software allowing vehicles and traffic signals to “talk” to each other to time stop signs with traffic needs.

Peachtree Corners has taken some technology and implemented it into their own city operations, including license plate cameras that allow police to identify vehicles connected to crime.

The unique program was launched not only to help further innovations in transportation and technology, but to be an engine for economic development.

“We built it to be a magnet for activity because we know activity begets activity,” City Manager Brian Johnson said.

Start-ups have rented office space in Prototype Prime, the tech incubator connected to Curiosity Lab, and the testing facilities are available to companies regardless of whether they’re based in the Atlanta area. Curiosity Lab has attracted visitors and new businesses, boosting the local economy, Johnson said. According to Johnson, Curiosity Lab’s partnerships have also created new opportunities for Peachtree Corners.

“We were in the first phase of 5G deployment of all of Georgia because of Curiosity Lab and our partnership with Sprint, now T-Mobile,” Johnson said. “We have partnerships with Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies, with academic institutions, that we would never have had otherwise.”

The progress hasn’t gone unnoticed; many Georgia city leaders have visited Curiosity Lab or spoken to Peachtree Corners officials about the work they’re doing. Johnson hopes more cities can launch similar projects in the future and establish Georgia as a hotspot for autonomous vehicle technology.

“A rising tide lifts all boats. We’re not the only one that could or should do this,” he said. “Our environment is not an environment that offers something for everybody, so there are other environments that could offer another setting, another roadway, another way to test vehicles.”

Charging the Local Economy

On a long drive down Interstate 75, you’ll probably have to make a pit stop for gas. But if you’re driving an electric vehicle, it might not be as easy to fuel up as keeping a lookout for a QuikTrip sign.

Electric cars are growing in popularity, but they’re still vastly outnumbered by traditional gas-powered vehicles. Charging stations can be hard to come by, especially in rural areas where the number of electric vehicle owners may be low. This problem for electric car drivers has become an opportunity for cities like Tifton, which has the only Tesla Supercharger station between Macon and Valdosta.

Located right off I-75, the charging station can accommodate eight cars at a time and is open 24/7. It can take as little as 15 minutes for a Tesla vehicle to get a charge that will last another 200 miles, according to the company. That’s enough time for many travelers, bored or tired from hours on the road, to stretch their legs and visit nearby businesses. “They are in a location where the cars can be parked and people can easily walk to several restaurants, so that helps to keep them here a while,” said Andrea Elder, assistant tourism coordinator for the Tifton-Tift County Tourism Association.

The Supercharger site has been in Tifton for more than five years, and it gets steady traffic, Elder said.

“Anytime you drive by there, at least 50% are being used,” she said.

Because charging an electric vehicle takes longer than filling up a gas tank, drivers have time to kill. In Tifton, they have a plethora of options, including more than 10 restaurants and a dog park within a mile of the charging station.

“Having the EV (electric vehicle) stations in Tifton has been a tremendous asset to our community and travelers,” said Tifton Mayor Julie Smith.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.

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