USDOT offering $50 million reward to city with most innovative idea for improving transportation

Updated Dec 10, 2015

Photo credit: USDOT

We’ve been speculating about the future of transportation since even before Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for his flying machine. And while our daily commute isn’t likely to take flight, despite what “Back to the Future’s” Doc Brown would have us believe, there are new transportation innovations constantly.

Self-driving cars and vehicle communications aren’t that far into the future, but with 70 million more drivers expected to be on the road by 2045, the U.S. Department of Transportation wants to hit the gas on innovation.

And the department is offering a hefty reward for the city in America with the most compelling plan to take advantage of modern technologies in order to improve infrastructure.

The U.S. officially launched the Smart City Challenge this week in order to call on mid-sized cities in America to come up with forward-thinking and innovative plans on how to improve infrastructure and bring it into the 21st Century. The city with the winning proposal will get a $50 million reward to advance infrastructure.

“We needed to do something that would basically jumpstart an entirely new, forward-looking conversation about what communities can do to build for the future,” USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said to Wired Magazine.

USDOT’s official website for the Smart City Challenge said the contest is looking for innovative plans that make transportation safer, easier and more reliable. Foxx wouldn’t give Wired any specific examples of what USDOT is looking for, but the winning proposal would “ideally” incorporate Intelligent Transport Systems, connected vehicles and autonomous cars.

“I’m looking for something bold,” Fox said.

The winning city will get $40 million from USDOT in order to be the first city to implement their plan. On top of that, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has teamed up with USDOT through his charitable organization Vulcan Inc. in order to give an additional $10 million for the winning city to support electric vehicles.

Vulcan President and COO Barbara Bennett said the partnership with USDOT for the Smart City Challenge made sense and was a chance to make a difference.

“We thought: Wouldn’t it be great to do something with a city,” Bennett said. “This is the sort of project that we like — partnering with others to develop innovative, scalable proof-of-concept solutions that address some of the world’s most urgent challenges.”

While the $50 million might be not seem like enough to fully fund transportation breakthroughs, Foxx said he thinks “this competition will punch well above its weight.”

Medium-sized cities from populations of 200,000 to 850,000 must have their proposals in by Feb. 4, and a selection of five finalists will be announced in March. The five final cities will get $100,000 to continue working on the idea, and the winner will be chosen in June.