Pittsburgh is a world leader in autonomous mobile systems technology, but that might not last without state and regional support.

That’s the conclusion of a new study conducted by TEConomy Partners for the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC) and Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. “Forefront: Securing Pittsburgh’s Break-out Position in Autonomous Mobile Systems” examines the challenges Pittsburgh faces if it wants to play a significant role in what is projected to be a trillion-dollar robotics industry just five years from now.

“We have all the puzzle pieces,” says RIDC President Donald F. Smith, Jr. “We need to put them together strategically and collaboratively — with a coordinated regional plan — or we’ll fall behind the competition.”

Pittsburgh has exceptional research and development operations, particularly via the universities. We’ve got headquarters and/or major operations for many of the major players in the self-driving vehicle industry, such as Aurora, Argo AI and Motional. Another self-driving giant, Waymo, just set up operations in Bakery Square. And Pittsburgh has created robots that go everywhere, from stocking shelves at warehouses (Seegrid, which hired about 125 people just last year) to exploring the Moon (Astrobotic).

Photos courtesy of Waymo.

The study found that Pittsburgh is second only to the Detroit-Ann Arbor region in the concentration of market leaders. Direct employment in Pittsburgh’s autonomous vehicle sector equals about 6,300 jobs, which generates an additional 8,604 full- or part-time indirect jobs.

“We’re the number three center in the country in terms of jobs, and we’re number one in technology,” says Smith. “We need to tell that story better, with a marketing and branding initiative to really get the word out, because we want every startup company to think, ‘I need to look at a Pittsburgh presence.’ We want every graduate of the top programs to think, ‘I should be looking at Pittsburgh as a place to work because there’s so much going on there.’”

However, there are some roadblocks when it comes to growing this industry further.

“Other places are being very intentional about creating a regulatory environment that is supportive and conducive to job growth, investing in infrastructure and demonstration and deployment projects, building a workforce, and coordinating supply chains,” says Smith.

“We need to make sure that this is not only the best place to do research and development of these autonomous technologies, but it’s also the best place to deploy and manufacture those technologies, because there’s going to be significant job growth attached, and other places are competing hard to get those.”

In terms of sheer volume, the Bay Area and Boston are the leaders — as they are in almost every technological area. Detroit also has an edge, due to its traditional dominance in automotive engineering. But there are also other places such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and Ohio that may not have Pittsburgh’s R&D, but they are making investments and “tweaking their regulatory environment to attract autonomy companies to their state,” notes Smith.

For example, Locomation is developing autonomous trucking technologies in Lawrenceville but they’re testing in Ohio and Indiana because regulations permit it, says Smith. “And so that means service techs and service depots and other kinds of jobs are going to those locations, not because they want to, but because they have to.”

Even though you see Argo and Aurora’s self-driving cars on the roads all over Lawrenceville and the Strip, they have to have drivers present.

“They can’t test them fully autonomously,” says Smith. “Same thing with the trucks.”

Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green, a hub for local robotics. Rendering courtesy of RIDC.

Of course, there’s a fear that increased automation will ultimately cost jobs in the long run. Truck drivers are in demand in dozens of states but if self-driving trucks become the norm, what happens to the drivers?

“If we do this right, we’ll capture the supply chain and the manufacturing of these components and systems, and that’ll create jobs for every level of skill and every part of the region,” Smith adds. “And so this really could be the same kind of economic driver that the steel industry was 100 years ago. It’s that profound.”

He adds that the region needs to learn from its past. “We rejected upgrading our steel mills because it would eliminate some labor. So the rest of the world did and took our steel industry. So, autonomous technology is coming, whether it comes from San Francisco or Boston or China.”

The study was funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Collaborators include Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, Pittsburgh Technology Council, Pittsburgh Robotics Network, and regional autonomous technology companies including Argo AI, Aurora, Carnegie Robotics, Motional, Seegrid and Thoro.ai.