Pittsburgh’s two robotics clusters rode the wave in recent years of an industry sector that then appeared to crash during the third and fourth quarters of last year.

Robotics Row, which runs along the Allegheny through the Strip District and Lawrenceville, along with Hazelwood Green along the Monongahela, became centers of the much-heralded autonomous vehicle [AV] industry. That sector’s trajectory, after months of setbacks, could affect the future of some of Pittsburgh’s high-growth neighborhoods and the development of the region as a whole.

Robotics Row and Hazelwood Green “are of critical importance,” said Matt Smith, the president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, the advocacy arm of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, because to build out an industry cluster, “you need locations and sites and you need close connectivity between companies and universities.”

The development of the city’s robotics clusters has been buoyed by the rise of Pittsburgh’s AV industry. Of the AV companies with a presence in Pittsburgh, almost all are headquartered in either Robotics Row or Hazelwood Green. But a tumultuous year has left Pittsburgh AV companies — and the ecosystem they inhabit — staring at an uncertain future.

Argo AI offices in Pittsburgh’s Robotics Row on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Strip District. In a statement by the company in October 2022, leadership said, “In coordination with our shareholders, the decision has been made that Argo AI will not continue on its mission as a company.” (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Aurora Innovation, an AV company based in the Strip District, made news in September when its CEO, Chris Urmson, discussed layoffs and a hiring freeze with Aurora’s board in a leaked memo. In October, Argo AI, an AV company formerly based in Lawrenceville, was dissolved by its majority owners, Ford and Volkswagen. Motional, an AV company which has a regional headquarters in Hazelwood, laid off workers in November.

“We’re definitely in a colder period now,” said John Dolan, a systems engineer and professor at the CMU Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research. “A bit of an autonomous driving winter perhaps, as we’ve seen with some of these recent closures. I just don’t know how it’s going to go in the future.”

Toggling the autonomous ignition switch

Pittsburgh put itself on the autonomy map in 2007, when Carnegie Mellon University’s Tartan Racing team won the DARPA Urban Challenge, a 60-mile driverless race. Notable alumni of the CMU team include Urmson; Raj Rajkumar, director of Mobility21, a smart transportation initiative; Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO of Argo AI; and Dave Ferguson, co-founder and president of Nuro, another AV company.

In 2008, General Motors revitalized an early 2000s partnership with CMU to advance driverless technology. The industry really started rolling a few years later. “In the middle 2010s, I was getting contacted on almost a weekly basis by reporters asking about what was going to make the difference,” said Dolan. “What were the gaps in autonomous driving technology? When were things going to be broadly deployed on roads?”

In 2014, SAE, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers, an engineering standards development body, capitalized on AV hype by introducing the SAE Levels of Driving Automation. The levels range from L0, meaning no autonomy, to L5, meaning full autonomy. AVs — vehicles that are capable of monitoring their own environments and moving without human input — operate in a range from L3, in which human override could still be necessary, to L5.

The Urban Challenge catalyzed a surge of AV innovation that drove collaboration between automakers and startups. Pittsburgh-based Argo AI and Aurora were among the beneficiaries of this wave.

In 2017, Ford announced that it was going to invest $1 billion into Argo AI over five years. Two years later, Volkswagen injected another $2.6 billion. 

Aurora made waves in 2018 when it announced a software partnership with Volkswagen and Hyundai.

Driving into the trough

Sustained investment throughout the 2010s was possible because of low interest rates in the wake of the 2007-09 financial crisis. Last year brought increased interest rates, driving lower spending and investment. In Aurora’s leaked memo, Urmson cited difficult market conditions that inhibited investment. 

The AV world is also grappling with a safety problem. 

“We need to solve the safety problem. That is crucial,” said Dolan. “And that’s really the main reason why we are unable to get things out there as quickly as we want to. It just hasn’t been solved to the satisfaction of those who would be deploying it.” 

While there is no consensus on acceptable standards for AV safety, it is clear that the vehicles will need to cause fewer than the current U.S. toll of around 40,000 road deaths per year.

“A lot of companies were saying that we were going to start seeing commercial solutions in 2022,” said Joel Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, a group of organizations committed to the advancement of robotic solutions. “It’s going to take longer to see L4 or L5 autonomy happen.” When Ford announced Argo AI’s dissolution, it cited postponed timelines as one of the factors behind the decision.

While AV sector leadership tried to temper expectations regarding the timeline to full autonomy, investors were still disappointed, according to Reed. Aurora, which was publicly listed in November 2021 at a valuation of $14 billion, is now valued at around $350 million. Aurora, which does not yet have revenue, is aiming for a commercial release of its software in 2024.

These three factors — economics, safety and commercialization — have induced skepticism about the AV sector, leading some to characterize it as having fallen into a “trough of disillusionment” part of the Gartner Hype Cycle, a pattern seen when new technology is introduced. That stage is usually characterized by failing companies and waning interest, but can turn into a “slope of enlightenment” after its minimum.

Three-point turn

Seeking opportunities, several AV companies have pivoted away from cars to advanced driver assistance and freight trucking solutions. 

Part of Ford’s statement when dissolving Argo, Reed said, “was that they were going to pause their efforts to go towards L5 autonomy and focus on a lot of driver-assist solutions that they have in house.”

Reed added that Aurora and Locomation “are focusing on a market that seems to have a greater need and a better chance of deploying this technology sooner versus later. That’s commercial trucking.”

Dolan agreed that software development is less of a challenge in the trucking arena. “The technology to do autonomous driving on the highways is easier than doing it in the cities, particularly under benign conditions,” he said. “Right now it’s pretty tough to deal with the most difficult weather conditions that truckers would be able to deal with. But under reasonable weather, it’s pretty doable.”

Economically, focusing on freight trucking is simpler for producers. According to Dolan, companies will have to make upwards of 50 sensors that enable L4-L5 driving cost less than $10,000. 

That sort of price tag is easier to justify on a freight truck than a Honda Civic.

Aurora launched a trucking project, Aurora Horizon, in 2021. Locomation, headquartered in Lawrenceville, tests autonomous trucks on I-76, I-79, I-279 and I-376. Maven, which works in autonomous fleet dispatch, is headquartered in Bloomfield.

Public-private synchrony

On the real estate side, the Regional Industrial Development Corporation [RIDC], a nonprofit developer, has been key in building up robotics clusters. In 2021, RIDC partnered with other organizations, including the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and Pittsburgh Robotics Network, to create a report studying Pittsburgh’s potential as an autonomous technologies hub.

“Since we released our report, there’s been significant progress, with legislation passed allowing testing of driverless vehicles, plans underway for a shared test track and a $62 million federal grant to support the growth of the industry and creation of jobs,” said RIDC President Don Smith.

RIDC has developed sites on both Robotics Row and Hazelwood Green, including Tech Forge, where Locomation is headquartered, and Mill 19, which houses Motional’s Pittsburgh headquarters.

Pittsburgh’s Robotics Row runs between the Strip District and Lawrenceville, as seen from Troy Hill on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2022. The area is home to many tech and robotics companies. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Smith said RIDC’s city properties are just part of the picture. RIDC is also developing a shared test track and potential manufacturing space at the Westmoreland Innovation Center in East Huntingdon Township.

City support will also be key. DOMI leads a number of initiatives surrounding smart cities and intelligent transportation systems upgrades like the Intelligent Transportation Systems Master Plan and Smart Spines Project, according to DOMI Director Kim Lucas.

“AVs and robotics are two elements that are helping to drive Pittsburgh’s emergence as a smart city by emphasizing that the city is a testbed for new technologies,” said Lucas. “One of the major industries in Pittsburgh has long been education and, thanks to that presence, the city has seen the growth of autonomous vehicles and robotics as components of the ever-growing tech industry’s local ecosystem.” 

The city’s Department of Innovation and Performance also runs PGH Lab, an incubator that provides consulting and networking opportunities to local startups. 

While PGH Lab does not expressly deal with robotics or autonomy, it broadly focuses on tech-related products, and 7% of applicants from its last two cohorts worked in vehicle autonomy.

PGH Lab does not have the capital to invest in the startups, but that is on the agenda. “If we were able to obtain funding, that would change quite a few things for us from the type of programming that we’re able to do with the businesses that get accepted into PGH Lab,” said Alaa Mohamed, a senior civic innovation specialist for the city.

A gentle slope ahead?

Community leaders got excited after Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act in August 2022, which authorizes investment in nationwide tech hubs.

Matt Smith noted that the federal government will allocate $10 billion to 20 regions nationwide that will be designated as tech hubs. “We think Pittsburgh is very well positioned to be designated as a tech hub given the world-class universities and high-growth companies that we have within this space,” he said.

Southwestern Pennsylvania also received a $62.7 million grant from the Build Back Better Regional Challenge in September, which will encourage the use of robotics and artificial intelligence technologies.

Close watchers of the industry said that public and private promotion of areas like autonomous freight trucking, real estate development and startup incubation positions Pittsburgh to play a pivotal role in the future of AVs.

“We think that the trajectory of the tech ecosystem and then specifically the robotics and autonomous mobile systems sector in Pittsburgh is very much on the rise,” said Smith, adding that would lead to job creation. 

And we’re just getting started, said Reed. “We’re only 10%, 20% into what’s possible from a development perspective in this industry.”

Aavin Mangalmurti is an editorial intern with PublicSource and can be reached via aavin@publicsource.org

This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.

Do you feel more informed?

Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.