By Robert Beckman
Beckman is a development economist with a background in commercialization of technology and venture capital promotion. A Stanford Graduate School of Business alumnus, he lives in Blacksburg.
The Roanoke Times editorial of August 29 described how technology-driven manufacturing clusters drawing on regional capabilities can transform economic development prospects (“The best plan yet”). Looking around us, we see a remarkable set of building blocks for a transportation technology cluster in the New River Valley:
1) The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
2) Autonomous vehicles pioneers in TORC and Aeroprobe.
3) Volvo Trucks in Pulaski, the largest Volvo plant in North America.
4) Advanced manufacturing in Montgomery and Floyd Counties.
5) Virginia Tech’s R&D capabilities, now enhanced by President Sands’ vision of making Tech one of the nation’s top research universities.
A cluster needs a focus for technology innovation. In Silicon Valley, it was computers. Here, it can be transportation with electric-powered vehicles. In fact, we have a ready-made situation for innovation around an expanded network of electric-powered buses. What we can realistically envision is the following:
1) Expansion of bus service to and within Blacksburg, to give commuters low-cost access to work and studies. Already, an estimated 17,000 persons commute into Blacksburg every day, and that number keeps growing.
2) Operation of busses with batteries charged by solar power. Such busses are already in operation, with significant cost saving, in several overseas localities. The maintenance facilities for the busses would provide employment here.
3) Operation of the expanded route network as a smart grid, with European-style shelters, reliability, schedule and arrival information and ease of payment.
4) Research and development on more efficient batteries; on more convenient charging systems; and on how autonomous or semi-autonomous guidance could be used for on-demand shuttle and feeder routes.
5) Local employment in companies supported by local venture capital. The cluster will also foster a pattern of innovation in products and services by suppliers to cluster OEMs — a key feature of the ‘virtuous circle’ characteristic of successful technology clusters.
An NRV transportation innovation cluster would of course not be limited to an expanded bus system. Because it will be part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem attracting talent and funding, the cluster will support autonomous, battery-powered systems in drone, mapping and package delivery. We are already one of the nation’s leading drone R&D centers.
Two more points here: Amazon has a strong interest in autonomous vehicles for product delivery, and we are now closely linked to Amazon’s HQ 2.
We are not constrained by the need for flat land that hampers investments in other Southwest Virginia areas. The VT Corporate Research Center and the Blacksburg and Christiansburg industrial parks offer ample space for investments in new facilities; and there is ample space in repurposed buildings in Pulaski as well.
We need to channel energy and enthusiasm toward the building of a transportation technology innovation cluster in the New River Valley!