Robot drivers in Baton Rouge? City hopes to lure smart car companies with new technology district _lowres

FILE - This May 13, 2015, file photo, shows Google's new self-driving car during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. The federal government's highway safety agency agrees with Google: Computers that will control the cars of the future can be considered their driver. The redefinition of "driver" is an important break for Google. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

Human and robot drivers may be sharing the road a little earlier in Baton Rouge than the rest of the world, if city leaders have their way.

The Metro Council has taken steps to market the city to companies, such as Google, that are working on automotive technology like driverless cars.

Efforts began months ago, as the city-parish applied for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, which aimed to promote transit innovation. Baton Rouge didn’t win the $40 million purse, but to prepare for their bid, officials spoke with Google representatives, said consultant John Snow, of Emergent Method.

Though they aren’t planning to move any time soon, the company laid out some of the features they would like to see when choosing a new site for a project like driverless cars. The city should have large areas available for product testing and operations but also have access to urban roads for field tests. It’s also important that local laws and ordinances aren’t too restrictive of emerging technology, Snow explained.

Combined with a steady flow of young programmers, engineers and software designers from LSU and Southern University, officials believe Baton Rouge fits the bill.

Chief Administrative Officer Williams Daniel said the city is also interested in trying to lure companies more tangentially involved with driverless cars, such as those developing navigation software, vehicle security features and automated delivery systems, all of which would be new industries in the area.

“It’s so wide open,” Daniel said.

There’s also the prospect of updating entire grids of the city-parish infrastructure. In the future, cars may be able to communicate with a city’s traffic-light system to sync lights to improve traffic flow, Snow said. Down the line, smart cities with fully automated systems might not even need traffic lights.

It sounds like science fiction, Snow admitted, but he added, “the future is not that far away.”

As part of this effort, the council this month signed off on the creation of a Smart City Committee to provide advice on technology issues and a Transportation Technology and Innovation District.

The district won’t have any taxing authority or change existing zoning. The goal is for its steering committee to convince companies in the technology sector to move to Baton Rouge and take advantage of existing state incentives for digital media and software development.

The district isn’t a single area of the parish. It’s spread out over land that can provide different services. Both LSU and Southern are included, as is the Downtown Development District. Between the airport district and land in the Innovation Park in the south of the parish, there are 325 acres of certified industrial sites in the technology district. The Baton Rouge Community College’s Ardendale Automotive Training Center and the Louisiana Technology Park Business Incubator on Florida Boulevard are also in the district.

Google officials told Snow that they weren’t looking to build any new automotive technology offices right away. However, hundreds, if not thousands, of companies are developing software for cars, trucks and motorcycles, and Snow thinks the city can pitch to them, as well.

There are big businesses like Uber, Tesla and Yamaha looking at this technology, but smaller companies and startups are also possibilities.

There are already 36 young entrepreneurs working downtown, some on multiple projects, said Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer. The area could probably support collaborative efforts like business incubators, which typically offer young companies shared office space, support staff and advisors while they establish their businesses.

Rhorer is also keen to overhaul the industrial site off Choctaw Drive, which will be absorbed into his district next year. He’s looking for a business that can “re-invent” the space. Several companies have already expressed interest in Baton Rouge, Daniel said, though he declined to reveal them.

The Louisiana Economic Development office allows companies in the technology sector to apply for a variety of incentive programs. The LED will have seats on both the Smart City Committee and the Technology and Innovation District’s task force. City and state officials, business groups and university representatives will also serve.

While various agencies are still sorting out who will take on those roles, LED has chosen James Chappell, its director of the State Economic Competitiveness team to serve on the district task force, a spokesman wrote in an email.

“This is a vital and important endeavor, and it demonstrates the visionary leadership in Louisiana to better position the state for new growth in the state’s business economy,” LED spokesman Joe Coussan wrote.

In addition to attracting businesses, the Smart City Committee will also be charged with advising the Metro Council on measures to keep residents safe, said councilman Buddy Amoroso, who sponsored the ordinances creating the committee and the district.

Some communities have placed restrictions on new automotive technology, often before they can be totally developed or understood, Snow explained. One potentially attractive feature of Baton Rouge is that it doesn’t have those bans.

But neither does that mean the city should allow a company to flood the streets with cars and trucks without drivers, Amoroso said.

Amoroso expressed admiration for Google’s driverless car technology, saying the company has a laudable safety record. But if it or another company wants to perform beta tests by sending experimental cars down Government Street, the city may have to make decisions balancing innovation and safety, he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.