Howard County, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab partner to create smart city concept in Columbia

Howard County hopes to use tools like self-driving vehicles to make it easier to live without a car through a partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

The partnership is intended to transform the 900-acre Columbia Gateway Innovation District business park into a mixed-used smart city, with enhanced transit, more efficient energy usage and strong cybersecurity.

The Institute for Assured Autonomy at the JHUAPL will be spearheading the collaboration between Hopkins and the Howard County Economic Development Authority. Institute Co-director Cara LaPointe said it’s the first time the institute, which is focused on ethical artificial intelligence, has worked directly with a municipality on research. In 2020, JHU committed $30 million to the institute.

Over the years, Howard County has transitioned from a rural community to a suburban area based around the car. Jason Jannati, HCEDA director of strategic partnerships, hopes that reducing the need for cars will benefit the region's economy by creating more economic mobility for people who can't afford cars.

“We're not under the illusion that we can remove cars or get rid of cars, but we want to supplement the existing infrastructure,” Jannati said.

The Hopkins institute works on a mix of autonomous systems design and government policy around AI. LaPointe said a key challenge is to ensure that stakeholders in the county trust the technology. The institute also hope to gain an understanding of the problems people in Howard County face that can be solved through AI. Jannati said the duo is planning to work with property owners within the Gateway district, along with the Horizon Foundation, the Community Action Council of Howard County, the Howard County School System and other players.

There are many ways outside of self-driving vehicles that AI can create better infrastructure. For example, infrastructure such as the layout of the grid can be optimized through the use of AI.

Autonomous vehicles will also change traffic patterns. LaPointe said the trucking industry is an example of an area that can be optimized through autonomous vehicles, since you can move goods for a longer period of time without being limited by human endurance. The same principles could be applied to an autonomous transit system, allowing for shuttles and buses that run for longer hours.

Jannati said an autonomous vehicle could be smaller with faster, more flexible routes.

Outside of transit, the partnership is looking at how to make a more energy efficient city through the comprehensive use of renewable energy. There are concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles, but Jannati said oftentimes vehicles have safety stewards present to prevent accidents.

Jannati is hopeful the partnership will bring outside renewable energy and autonomous transit companies into Howard County to explore new innovative technologies.

“As a university-affiliated research center, one of our roles is to be a bridge between academia, industry and government,” LaPointe said.

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