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The Curiosity Lab and the city of Peachtree Corners in Georgia are luring researchers, mobility start-ups, tech companies, automakers, innovators and the curious with real-life testing and tech amenities. Auto Futures talks to Betsy Plattenburg, Executive Director of Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners.

Peachtree Corners is a planned community near Atlanta. It is the original home of Technology Park, where the colour printer and modem were invented in the central business district.

Curiosity Lab is a nonprofit that is investing in a new form of business development. The city provides the accoutrements needed for cutting-edge mobility testing, V2X, autonomous driving, smart city infrastructure and more.

“Like a community may offer a pool or golf course as an amenity. We wondered – how can we revitalize and grow by offering amenities that technology mandates for the future?” asks Plattenburg.

The amenities offered in Peachtree Corners include an autonomous vehicle test track, 5G, smart traffic lights, hotels, a garage, an incubator program and innovation centre.

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Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Garage

“We originally had a two-lane road with a median. Then we made it into a four-lane road with a separate outside autonomous vehicle testing lane. Companies can test autonomous vehicles up to level 5 on a three-mile loop. It enables real-real world testing,” says Plattenburg.

The autonomous road lane is clearly marked with coloured lines, bollards and signage to warn the citizens that it is an autonomous lane. It is a small community. Every once in a while, someone driving a car or riding a bike will get into the autonomous lane. They are not supposed to be there. It is all part of testing for AVs, she says.

So far, no one has gotten hurt. There have been no accidents.

“We have not had any incidents as of today. We do make sure that the companies testing follow operation regulations and are fully insured. And we carry a large amount of insurance.” 

Mobility companies like the test track because part of the road has a steep 13% grade. The streets have big sweeping curves. There are tall deciduous trees that line the road. The shadows change when the trees lose their leaves. Plus, pine straw falls on the roads that autonomous vehicles have to identify and navigate.

“We are not a big city like Manhattan. We have hundreds of people who live here. The track is better than a closed track because it is an intermediate stop before real-world testing,” explains Plattenburg.

Recently, Curiosity Lab added a garage to enable car companies to work on their vehicles.

Also part of Curiosity Lab is a 25,000 square-foot innovation centre for start-ups up to Fortune 500 companies, says Plattenburg.

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Free Smart City Infrastructure Testing

“Our goal is to bring opportunities to reality. It’s a win-win for the visitors because we do not charge for smart city infrastructure use,” says Plattenburg.

“We want people to come to use the systems to stay at our hotels, eat in our restaurants and to attract visitors. We do not charge a fee. We facilitate innovation for others with many opportunities for testing,” says Plattenburg.

When Peachtree Corners Curiosity Lab opened, Local Motors autonomous shuttles provided rides.

“The shuttles themselves were really cute and people wanted to ride them.” 

She says the weather in Peachtree Corners is fairly temperate. They do have snow once in a while. Rain should be expected. However, people’s behaviour is irregular, like people will walk and some sections that may not be expected.

“As far as vehicle testing. We’re open to anything anyone wants to test. We have different companies testing different things right now. T-Mobile provides 5G service. There is someone from T-Mobile to help companies of all sizes and all types of businesses to test 5G,” says Plattenburg.

When Peachtree Corners and the lab works with partner, the partner has to provide the services for free.

“We felt it is important to provide ways of testing for everyone,” she adds.

The Curiosity Lab has partnered with Georgia Tech to recruit start-ups. It is part of the 5G Connected Future program, launched earlier this year by T-Mobile Accelerator. The program is managed by the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC).

In June, the lab announced that Qualcomm Technologies will be enabling the ecosystem for Cellular-Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X). The city is working with Commsignia for roadside units (RSUs) using Qualcomm’s C-V2X solution. City utility vehicles outfitted with C-V2X will test and demonstrate vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) direct communications.

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Home to Self-Driving E-Scooters and PAUL

There have been many types of autonomous mobility testing at Peachtree Corners such as Tortoise teleoperated remote-controlled e-scooters. There were a hundred scooters deployed.

“At first, the community freaked out by seeing scooters run with training wheels and cameras on the sidewalks. On the other hand, it was fun. Like Uber, people could call for the scooters and they would arrive,” says Plattenburg. She notes it is helpful for people to see things in reality.

On 6 October, the new autonomous fleet shuttle service PAUL (Piloting Autonomous Use Locally) operated by Beep was launched. Autonomous vehicles from Local Motors and Navya use T-Mobile 5G and C-V2X infrastructure, vehicle data and collaboration with other Curiosity Lab companies.

OVHcloud is providing compute, storage and other cloud platform resources.

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“I suspect in the next twenty years, the whole concept of delivery will change greatly.”

Plattenburg says that she likes being at Peachtree Corners Curiosity Lab because “I like that it is unpredictable.”

“I like unpredictability. We get to increase interest in using our city for autonomous vehicles. Customers can also test boats or tractors or just parts of equipment that may need testing. They can also test things in a lake or up the air. Drones can be tested up to 700 feet high. In fact, we had a company that was testing a way for drones to swap out their batteries instead of returning for charging.” 

At the opening of Peachtree Corners Curiosity Lab, local STEM high school students programmed drones to hold a ribbon in the air for the mayor to cut.

A company’s testing in town can be confidential, private or public depending upon what the company wants.

“If they don’t want us to talk about what they’re doing – we won’t talk about it,” says Plattenburg.

“It is a very unique public-private partnership. We work with universities, start-ups and companies of all sizes to test, demonstrate and deploy in our small community. 

“Lately, there have been companies working on last-mile delivery. I suspect in the next twenty years, the whole concept of delivery will change greatly.” 

In the future, Curiosity Lab will be courting more visitors through mobility events.

“We are open to increasing our partnerships. We have thousands of hotel rooms with full-service technology conference centres, where we are planning mobility events in the future.”

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