Vehicles are shared, electric, connected and autonomous.

The Smart Columbus project has attracted $500 million in financial commitments since the city won its initial $50 million in last year's Smart City Challenge. Now many experts in the public-private-academic partnership believe Columbus can play a pivotal role in creating the future of mobility by testing multiple pilots in a city-sized laboratory.

Smart Columbus partners say the city's urban-suburban ecosystem will help pave the way to a future of shared, electric, connected and autonomous vehicles. That's a mouthful of future adjectives, so here's what that vision looks like right now:

Shared

We'll share cars more and own them less because we'll have convenient access to shared vehicles and other forms of common transportation.

Companies like Uber and Lyft are proving that consumers will move toward buying rides from each other and sharing vehicles, especially for short urban trips or when they travel out of town. Futurists predict such services will gradually displace ownership of personal vehicles.

Electric

We'll drive right by the gas station with cars and SUVs powered by ever-more-efficient batteries, and we'll save money recharging with low overnight rates.

Battery costs have dropped from as much as $1,000 per kilowatt-hour a few years ago to about $145 per kilowatt-hour today. A new Nissan Leaf might use 25 of its 35 kWh of power a day to go 75 miles or more, but at a cost of as little as $1 for an overnight charge.

Connected

Our vehicles will communicate with GPS mapping, the internet, the road infrastructure and other vehicles, allowing them to travel quickly in tight formations, using sensors and car-to-car connectivity to avoid collisions.

Phone-based internet news and entertainment apps already are loaded onto many car video screens, and today's massive data stores and throughput speeds will only increase.

Autonomous

Our cars will mostly drive themselves, using 360-degree cameras, sensors and on-board computers to map out the least-congested route to our destinations.

Experts say autonomous cars will increase safety, relieve traffic congestion and help elderly and disabled people who need transportation to get groceries and medicine. Autonomous vehicles will help them maintain quality of life and independence.

For Safety and the Environment

In a harbinger of this future, many vehicles already have Advanced Driver Assistance Systems elements such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot protection, backup cameras, lane-departure warning systems and limited autopilot systems. Better camera technology, radar and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) systems, along with enhanced shape software, could make autonomous vehicles affordable and widely available soon.

Already, automakers representing 99 percent of American noncommercial vehicles have committed to making AEB systems standard in six years, preventing 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries three years ahead of their original required schedules, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Those who still want to keep their hands on the steering wheel might someday have to pay higher insurance rates for the privilege—and for the risk they pose to passengers in autonomous cars. Elon Musk, the Tesla electric vehicle pioneer, believes non-autonomous vehicles will look like horses and buggies on the highway.

Over time, cost savings and environmental benefits will be harder to resist, says Mark Dowd, who implemented the Smart City Challenge for the US Department of Transportation last year.

“I think there is going to be a shift. We have been very road-centric for a long time and our throughput on the roads in urban environments is not sustainable,” Dowd says. “There are a whole bunch of problems, but the framing of it is that Columbus is going to double in size. Can you deal with that by building new roads? I think the conclusion is, no. So you have to go for a different set of solutions.”

Cars That Can Learn

Google, Lyft, Uber and Tesla—as well as companies we don't even know yet—might have just as much to say about the future of mobility as Ford, GM, Toyota and Honda. Thirty-five major corporations have joined this international race. Meanwhile, Ohio State University has committed $57 million in research to Smart Columbus, says Carla Bailo, OSU assistant vice president for mobility research and business development.

“The car itself is going to continue to get better. But in the new world it's going to be about how that car can learn, how it can think like a human, how it can interpret people's actions, so that it can be ready to drive somebody around,” says Bailo. “That is the only way, based on the statistics that we've been seeing, that we can improve the situation of fatalities and accidents on our roadways today, with 94 percent of them caused by human error.”

The Electrified Mobility Future

Smart Columbus hasn't attracted all the major players here yet, but it is working on ways to learn from them. Uber has extensive pilot projects in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Waymo, Google's autonomous vehicle subsidiary, has asked hundreds of families to try autonomously driven Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix and its suburbs.

All cities are grappling with issues of traffic congestion, the environment and safety, but Smart Columbus includes a major electrification bet. American Electric Power plans to install 1,000 electric vehicle recharging stations in area homes, 250 in public areas and 25 high-speed charging stations.

“We really think autonomous vehicles will be electric vehicles,” says Ram Sastry, who manages electric vehicle technology programs for both AEP Ohio and its parent company. The technology could theoretically work with internal combustion engines, but they believe electric vehicles are a better fit, moving automatically into charging docks without driver assistance. “I wouldn't say that's 100 percent sure, but the odds on electric vehicles being the future of transportationare very high,” Sastry says.

In February 2016, transportation overtook electricity generation as the No. 1 source of greenhouse gases, notes Spencer Reeder, senior program officer of climate and energy for Vulcan Inc., which provided $10 million of the original Smart Cities Challenge grant funding. Electric vehicles and the decarbonization of AEP's grid attack both sources, he says.

“We think the city of Columbus is setting a tremendous example for the rest of the country, where it coincides with economic development, where it coincides with a renaissance in the electric utility world (due to) new demand for their product through the conversion of fossil fuel-combusting vehicles to electric vehicles.”

Behavioral Roadblocks Ahead

Still, most Smart Columbus team members acknowledge psychological barriers to adopting shared vehicles, regardless of electricity, the environment or newly available technologies.

Providing everyone autonomous vehicles won't solve the problem if people can't share, says OSU's Bailo. “For most people, their car is the second largest purchase they ever make, but it sits 95 percent of the time. It's incredible. I don't think people understand how much they're paying. I've seen numbers lately of about $745 a month. It's a shocking figure.”

“But it means that people always have a way to get where they want to go. So if we want to change that mentality—even if it's painful for people to sit in traffic jams, they still want that security blanket—we need to provide a sane mobility as a service for people. That's a behavioral change, and it's a trust issue.”

Jon Coleman, fleet sustainability and technology manager for Ford Motor Company, who will spend six months at Smart Columbus, says people working on the project here recognize that applying technology is meaningless if you don't change behavior.

“The future of mobility is agreed by most people: autonomous, connected, electric and shared. The first three can be solved by brute-force research. It's just a matter of time,” he says. “But if you have an autonomous connected electric vehicle, and it's stuck in traffic because it's not shared, you're no better off than a regular vehicle,” Coleman says.

“We've had car pools as long as we've had cars. But car pooling today is at about the same rate as 100 years ago. We have proven as a society incredibly resistant to that. People use cars as lockers, dining rooms, offices, but for the most part, they don't use them at all. Columbus is lucky—we don't have extreme traffic problems here, but we can see them coming. Now we have to think about how to change people's behavior.”

Robbie Diamond, a consultant to the team from SAFE, Securing America's Future Energy, believes the key is getting CEOs to commit to electric vehicles for their personal use, to purchase electric vehicles for corporate fleets and to expand the number of charging stations for personal vehicles parked at the office.

At AEP, Sastry believes plug-in electric vehicle prices need to settle into the range of $40,000 to $50,000. Also, preferential parking for owners and easy-to-find charging stations have spurred consumer demand in cities such as Amsterdam and in countries such as Norway, where electric-vehicle ownership is climbing toward 30 percent, Sastry says.

Columbus as A Beta Tester

Columbus, long an enthusiastic center for advanced commercial logistics, has much less of a track record on community transit or high-speed rail innovation. It is a typical American urban-suburban metro area, with average bus, road and freeway systems, and relatively low rates of ride-sharing and electric-vehicle adoption.

“In other words, if Columbus can do this, it can be done elsewhere. If Columbus is a beta for a lot of things, then why not be a beta for what a Smart City means,” says Dowd.

“Cities all over the world are attacking these challenges piecemeal,” Coleman says.

“If I could place a bet on what Columbus will be known for five years from now, it would be the ability to integrate the challenges of autonomy; electric vehicles; getting people to share vehicles; and having the public sector, the private sector, the academic and the NGO (non-governmental organizations) all working together. It's that approach that I think people will realize will make the difference.”

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.