HILLSBORO, N.D.—A speck on the map with a population 1,609, Hillsboro is a farming community that sits along Interstate 29 in the far eastern fringes of North Dakota. It is, at once, in the middle of nowhere and at the nexus of forces reshaping transportation.
Farmers are eyeing the use of automated tractors to plow fields. A nearby beet-processing facility faces a chronic shortage of truck drivers available to haul their products. Unmanned aerial systems are tested at the town's airport, where engineers pioneer systems that allow drones to fly beyond line of sight.
Soon, a self-driving shuttle bus may trundle along the town's streets. Hillsboro has applied for funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will award as much as $60 million in grants this spring to communities and organizations seeking to demonstrate automated-driving systems.
Seventy-three proposals were received by the DOT, and the list of applicants includes the usual batch of big cities, such as Boston and Los Angeles, along with state, regional and local transportation departments, and more than a dozen universities.
But the list also includes small towns and rural communities such as Adrian, Mich., and Hillsboro, as well as the Indian Nations Council of Governments, a voluntary association of local and tribal governments that conducts planning across a five-county region around Tulsa, Okla.
Far from Silicon Valley and other urban hotspots, the applications from smaller towns and organizations shows how the potential of automated-driving machines has seeped into the ambitions of communities across the country.
Like the Smart City Challenge before it, the Automated Driving System Demonstration Grants program provides a catalyst for imagining a transportation future unlocked by autonomy. This time around, multiple awards will likely be made, rather than a single one, though DOT officials haven't set a firm number that will be doled out later this spring.
For many smaller communities and entities, a little funding may go a long way. Here's a look at some of their plans.
One of the earliest challenges for Levi Reese, vice president of the commission that runs the city, was keeping the conversation going with representatives of self-driving shuttle companies.
"Most of the companies we talked to would ask us, 'How many buses do you want, 20?'?" Reese said. "We're like, 'No, just one.'?"
French shuttle maker Navya, which has the only assembly plant dedicated solely to automated vehicles in North America, finally answered the city's call for an automated-vehicle partner for the grant proposal. Together, they have proposed a three-phase plan that starts with a fixed route around downtown that would help residents get to doctor's appointments, grocery stores and schools.
Later, they would add a ride-sharing component that would expand into more far-flung locations in the area and eventually help ferry residents to jobs at the beet-processing plant outside town and one day connect them with Grand Forks and Fargo.
"It's tying all these things together," said Terry Sando, the city commission's president. "Maybe one works, or maybe two do. We don't know. That's part of the research. ... But we know that when you live out on the farm or in the country and you don't drive anymore, your options are very limited."
Leaders in this town of roughly 20,500—flanked by Siena Heights University on its northeastern side, Jackson College to its north and Adrian College on its western end—believe the area should be known as a classic college town. It's not.
"They've actually been pretty siloed," said Chris Miller, economic development and downtown development coordinator in Adrian. "We don't see a lot of movement downtown, and we've been working to change that."
Those plans include applying for DOT grants that would pay to run three EZ10 shuttles from manufacturer EasyMile for as long as 18 hours per day. Three fixed routes would connect the three colleges with downtown, and help connect workers with major employers in the area.
"What was interesting was the business leaders in the room said, 'We need you to do this to get people to work,'?" Miller said. "Right now, they're all doing creative things to reach deeper into the work force."
One wrinkle: Some of the routes, as currently planned, would require crossing intersections with traffic lights. Miller says those lights would need to be outfitted with certain technology to integrate with EasyMile's shuttles, and Adrian has requested $100,000 as part of its grant proposal to pay for those upgrades.
Indian Nations Council
The grant proposal put forth by the Indian Nations Council is notable because it does not rely on fixed-route operations. Instead, the council has partnered with Optimus Ride and designed a service that could provide door-to-door service for residents from vehicles that are hailed on demand, either via an app or phone call.
The problem isn't so much about transportation as it is about food.
"We're trying to provide people with a real transportation solution to get to a grocery store," said Adriane Jaynes, alternative fuels planner with the council, which has proposed providing the Optimus Ride shuttle in a 9-square-mile area identified as a food desert.
It can take 50 to 60 minutes for residents to get to a grocery store via current public transportation options, she said. Frozen foods might thaw or melt by the time shoppers arrive home.
At the same time, residents often shop for an entire month's worth of provisions in a single trip, so they're not inclined to buy fresh groceries either. "You have to have more transportation options to encourage them to buy fresh," Jaynes said.
What's motivating many of those who submitted grants is the feeling that if these towns can capitalize on automated-driving technology, they can prove AV technology's viability for thousands of smaller and rural communities.
"For us, it's partially about we don't want to be left behind as Silicon Valley prepares for the future," said Viplav Putta, director of the council's transportation division. "If they can make it run safely here, I'm sure they can replicate it everywhere else."