Editorial: Autonomous vehicle grant could mean things for Peoria

Opinion piece appearing in the Journal Star

Posted Mar 9, 2019 at 6:18 PM

Our View

Embracing technology could lead to great things happening in our region. From hosting a state-sponsored driverless vehicle innovation hub to establishing a Peoria County land bank to speed redevelopment in high-vacancy neighborhoods to taking advantage of federal legislation signed last month to make it easier for Peoria to move forward on a first-in-the- nation green solution for the decades-old combined sewer overflow problem, each project could generate jobs and change the course of industry in central Illinois in coming years.

And what’s so refreshing is leaders in the region are working together to make these things happen.

The autonomous vehicle project has much potential. Peoria wants to get a piece of the $60 million worth of grants being offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation for demonstration projects. No more than $10 million will go toward any one recipient and no more than $15 million to any one state.

Nexmobi is a not-for-profit coalition formed in Peoria that looks to use autonomous mobility to drive economic growth in the region. Eng Seng Loh, the former director of strategic growth projects for Caterpillar Inc.’s earth-moving division and now CEO of Certus Strategies LLC, founded Nexmobi to promote autonomous research and embrace innovation to redefine how we get around.

While companies are still being courted, Loh said the most important private partner is AutonomouStuff, the Morton company that has tripled in size since being established in 2010.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis supports the project. “We’re seeing energy around us as innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers and businesses recognize what’s happening in Peoria and the surrounding communities,” he told the Journal Star.

Jerry Quandt, director of Chicago-based Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association, believes that Peoria has a solid chance to secure a federal grant. He said Peoria’s proposal about using a variety of technical inputs to enable the safer operation of autonomous vehicles makes it competitive with other states leading the pack in autonomous vehicle technology, such as California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Michigan. But he sees Illinois taking the lead with Peoria established as a test hub, able to move from urban, suburban and rural settings. Aiding Peoria’s pitch is the corridor that includes State Farm and Rivian in Bloomington/Normal and Caterpillar and Komatsu in Peoria, two companies that have autonomous mining machines.

Caterpillar unveiled the first fully autonomous mining truck in 1996 at Minexpo in Las Vegas, and Loh said Caterpillar continues to show interest in the Nexmobi project.

State support for the project is vital. Gov. JB Pritzker told the Journal Star last week he will look into Peoria and its potential in the U.S. Department of Transportation autonomous vehicle grant. Pritzker’s support could go a long way.

This project needs to be paramount for Peoria and the region as the city seeks to grow jobs and create a more versatile economy.