Electric transportation generates the biggest buzz in $50M Smart City Challenge


The winner of the $50 million Smart City Challenge won't be announced until next month, but the organizers have already picked at least one winning technology for transforming transportation and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions: electric vehicles.

Switching over to electric vehicles will be a "central pillar" for urban transportation strategies, said Spencer Reeder, senior program officer for climate and energy at Seattle billionaire Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc. Vulcan is contributing $10 million to support the challenge, while the U.S. Department of Transportation has pledged up to $40 million.

The challenge started last December, with the aim of encouraging mid-sized cities to develop safer, more efficient and more environmentally sound transportation systems. Seventy-eight cities submitted proposals, and in March, the field was trimmed down to seven finalists: Austin, in Texas, Columbus in Ohio, Denver, Kansas City in Missouri, Pittsburgh, Portland in Oregon and San Francisco.

The final submissions are due on May 24, and the winning city will receive the lion's share of the prize money to help turn its plan into a demonstration project.


One of the things that's surprised Reeder about the competition is how quickly the technologies to support electric transportation are making their way into the marketplace.

"The charging infrastructure is going through a Moore's Law-type transformation," he told GeekWire in a telephone interview.

One aspect has to do with charging stations. Some corporations and cities are subsidizing fast-chargers that could fill up an electric car's batteries with juice in about as much time as it take to fill a gas tank. Tesla Motors, for instance, plans todouble the size of its global car-charging network within two years.

Public transit is also getting in on the charging revolution. Reeder cited systems that use embedded induction coils to charge up electric-powered buses wirelessly while they wait at a stop. Among the developers of the technology are WAVEWiTricity andScania. (Backers of the technology say the health effects of wireless charging are minimal, but it's a subject for debate nevertheless.)

Reeder said Vulcan and the Department of Energy aren't looking for a totally new magic bullet for the nation's transit ills. "We're not necessarily interested in bleeding-edge technology," he said. "We're interested in cutting-edge technology, and deploying that at scale."


Vulcan is particularly interested in technologies that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and address the coming climate challenge. "In the U.S., transportation is the No. 2 source of greenhouse gases," Reeder pointed out. (Electricity generation is No. 1, accounting for 32 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in the 1990-2012 time frame. Transportation accounts for 28 percent.)

As far as Reeder is concerned, the winning combination for the Smart City Challenge will include technological innovations like smart charging, connected vehicles andtraffic coordination; public and private-sector incentives for mass transit use; municipal policies that are friendly to bike paths, pedestrian walkways and walkable communities; and tweaks in the power paradigm such as time-of-use pricing for electricity.

"We're looking for a city that could inspire the rest of the nation," Reeder said.

Even the 71 cities that didn't make the finals submitted some "really good applications," Reeder said, and he hopes those cities will follow through on the great ideas they developed. That definitely goes for Seattle – which earned Reeder's praise for the $930 million "Move Seattle" transportation levy that was approved last year, as well as for the "Challenge Seattle" transportation plan that's been drawn up with backing from Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon and other heavy-hitters.

"That's a testament to why we put this program together with the DOT," Reeder said.

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