Civic News

On the road to transportation tech success, this is where Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania succeed — and struggle

Ahead of a competition for federal infrastructure funding, local experts gathered to discuss what's keeping the industry from moving faster, including a talent gap.

An Aurora autonomous truck.

(Courtesy photo)

Pittsburgh is home to a number of companies hoping to revolutionize the transportation industry through technology. But what will it take to make sure that innovation touches everyone?

Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) hosted a virtual “Moving Forward with STEM” webinar convening industry experts to discuss how the transportation industry is being reimagined in the midst of major tech advancements like autonomous vehicles. Speakers included representatives from Aurora, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, Community College of Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Technology Council and PennDOT itself, all hosted by Mobility21, a national university transportation center housed under CMU’s Traffic21 Institute.

They focused on how Pittsburgh is leading the way in creating a tech-centric transportation industry, but also, how the city and state of Pennsylvania are both dealing with persistent challenges in the talent pipeline. With representation from public, private and academic partners alike, panelists discussed what the city and state have gotten right — and what they can do better in the world of transportation-related tech as they get ready to compete for some industry-changing funding.

Read our top takeaways from the event below, and find a full recording here:

Infrastructure bill funding is the key to STEM-centric modernization for PA

More than $1 trillion in funding is coming to states in two types of allocations — formula-based and grant-based, said Yassmin Gramian, the secretary of PennDOT. The formula-based funding, as she called it, is already assigned to states according to certain needs or priorities determined by the federal government. But the grant-based funding will be awarded on a competitive basis, and that’s where Pennsylvania has an opportunity to really get some of the money it needs to modernize its transportation infrastructure.

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“We’ve been actually putting in a lot of efforts and reaching out to external resources to make sure that we are ready to respond to these grants,” Gramian said. But that’s not something PennDOT can do alone. “We all see that we can do more. We can be more successful when we collaborate, when we partner with our private partners, with our academia partners, institutions and in all areas, we need to work together.” And in fact, Gramian said, the federal government has incentives for those types of cross-sector partnerships in some of the grants.

STEM advancements in transportation will directly benefit the AV industry

“There are two things that keep me up at night when it comes to this space,” said Matt Blackburn, the senior manager for government relations at Aurora. “The first one’s the regulatory side.”

"We don't have to hire Ph.D.s in computer science every day. There's a lot of other skills."
Matt Blackburn, Aurora

Blackburn referenced the fact that several other states are ahead of Pennsylvania in allowing for driverless deployment of autonomous vehicles for testing, which is frustrating given the industry’s concentration here. Still, he noted, PennDOT and representatives within the state government are in the midst of working on bipartisan legislation to achieve those advancements.

But bringing about those legal changes wouldn’t resolve another issue Blackburn sees for the local autonomous vehicle industry: a talent gap.

“There are very few tech companies in Pittsburgh that could not tie their roots in some way back to CMU, or Pitt for that matter,” he said. But despite the local technical expertise that was the basis of founding companies like Aurora, “we don’t have to hire Ph.D.s in computer science every day,” Blackburn said. “There’s a lot of other skills” the company needs.

He likened the potential for wide-ranging career opportunities in robotics to those exhibited by the nursing industry today, saying that robotics and other tech companies can benefit from “stackable” academic programs that are approachable and affordable. For Pittsburgh to continue to be a robotics capital of the world, it needs to find new ways of both growing and attracting talent.

Vocational training could be the key to new onramps

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, advocated for her organization’s efforts in creating new pathways to vocational trainings like apprenticeships with respect to the local tech industry. As one way of addressing the talent gap that Blackburn referenced, “what we’re doing is we’re going out to these communities that have been left behind,” Russo said. The hope is that those who previously relied on the steel-centric manufacturing industry of Pittsburgh can go through programs like Apprenti and launch new careers in manufacturing related to tech and robotics.

Part of the success of these efforts relies on giving new context to what vocational training really is, and the career opportunities it can offer.

“We have to work hard to change the narrative around what is called vocational education,” Russo said. “We let that slip, and during that period of time, we lost a generation — that word ‘vocation,’ that word ‘alternative track to college,’ it just needs to penetrate parents and it needs to penetrate schools and it has to be embraced by kids.”


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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