Among an audience of New York City government stakeholders invested in the future of transportation, NYC DOT Assistant Commissioner Will Carry helped kick off the DOT Studio Demo Day on November 17 by saying, “When we think about innovation, we think about how we can apply technology to support our core mandates. How can technology help to make our services safer and give New Yorkers more sustainable choices for getting around?” It is this vision that led Newlab and NYC DOT to team up at the end of 2021 to launch an innovation project aimed at improving the safety and sustainability of New York City’s transportation system.
Newlab approaches complex challenges by applying its innovation framework – mobilizing people, capital, and expertise to connect stakeholders with innovators that have the expertise to build, test and scale world-changing ideas. Starting with in-depth interviews with NYC DOT team members and enabling partners, such as Con Edison, Newlab established a foundation of knowledge to better understand the City’s key transportation challenges. Two focus areas emerged as priorities for the project:
- Improving the NYC DOT’s pavement marking analysis and maintenance operations.
- Supporting NYC DOT’s electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure strategy and rollout towards 2025 and 2030 curbside charging goals.
Through research and deep dives with experts at NYC DOT, Newlab surfaced solution parameters that technologies needed to address the focus areas, and in the months that followed, recruited an ecosystem of cutting-edge teams with relevant solutions. Five companies were selected to participate and launched pilots across New York City over the summer and fall. The Demo Day provided a platform to highlight the participating companies and discuss learnings with local government stakeholders, including New York City Economic Development Corporation, Con Edison, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the NYC Office of Technology and Innovation.
To set the stage for the presentations that followed, Shaina Horowitz, Newlab VP of Applied Innovation, shared Newlab’s belief in the intrinsic value of pilots. These experiments are a nimble way to uncover hurdles at a small scale, sharpen the understanding of solution requirements, and connect relevant stakeholders needed for successful market entry and adoption.
Newlab Program Director Cait Shubick welcomed Dr. Seth Contreras, DOT Innovation Advisor, and the three EV charging companies onstage to discuss how this project addressed the curbside EV charging challenge. Contreras shared NYC DOT’s motivation around this topic, noting the climate risk of vehicular transport: 30% of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and of those, 80% are emitted by passenger vehicles. It’s a critical sector to decarbonize and in support of this, New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently passed a mandate that by 2035 all new vehicles sold have to be zero-emission models. To make that vision a reality, EV charging has to be widespread and accessible in the City – providing public curbside charging is one of the primary ways to get there.
“Cost-effective and scalable curbside charging is an absolute necessity. The best way to get there is to start with pilots,” said Contreras. Solutions that are unobtrusive, deliver Level 2 charging capacity and are user-friendly are key parameters NYC DOT was keen to explore. Working with Newlab allowed NYC DOT to run small-scale tests of technologies meeting these requirements to explore retrofitting street infrastructure and understanding user experience and the total cost of installation for curbside charging. This process proved pivotal for the EV charging companies, who had line-of-sight into how they might need to collaborate with the local entities, navigate review processes for construction and adapt their products for market entry.
Paul Ayres, co-founder of Connected Kerb, a UK company with a two-part street charging solution, talked about the company’s journey to pilot in NYC. Connected Kerb, along with its U.S. partner, Charge Enterprises, is focused on charge points for ubiquitous distribution in the public realm, so this opportunity was a perfect fit for its roadmap. Ayres highlighted the importance of this pilot as a way to localize Connected Kerb’s mature technology for the NYC context. By leveraging a semi-private location within the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the company is testing its solution in a low-risk way, which is producing key learnings for how to adapt the product to U.S. grid specifications and navigate City processes for installation approval. Using this engagement as a catalyst, Connected Kerb is launching a U.S. subsidiary and raising investment.
Next, Richard Stobart, CEO of Char.gy, a UK company with a novel streetlight retrofit, presented his technology and pilot approach. Char.gy installed its charger at an NYC DOT lot in Queens to test the adaptation of its ‘backpack’ charger unit to the City’s standard octagonal light pole and collect user feedback on a user-supplied cord versus a tethered cord. The team also conducted a survey of New Yorkers’ attitudes toward EV charging, which revealed that 80% of residents without an EV expressed concern about not having access to chargers and 75% of people who already own an EV shared this same concern – highlighting access as a key hurdle for EV adoption. Next steps for Char.gy include exploring two additional deployments in Brooklyn and pursuing UL certification. Stobart closed with, “Things we thought might be easy were difficult, but the things we thought would be challenging proved straightforward,” nicely showcasing the value of a pilot to uncover early findings that can pave an easier path to deployment.
Lastly, Jeff Prosserman, CEO of Voltpost, an NYC company transforming lamp posts into smart EV charging stations, shared his company’s pilot experience of deploying its first prototype at an NYC DOT lot in Staten Island. NYC DOT and Con Edison benefited from a first-hand look at the Voltpost installation and were able to provide feedback as the team tested their integrated, modular retrofit with a retractive, tethered cord. Voltpost is extending the Staten Island pilot into early 2023 to collect additional feedback from NYC DOT staff that will be utilizing the charger and aims to pursue UL certification afterward. Prosserman wrapped by sharing his vision to design a product that is a beacon for NYC’s commitment to sustainability.
Contreras capped off the panel by noting that with pilots, the process often outweighs the outcomes in terms of value, saying, “Getting these pilots launched in record time is a testament to all the stakeholders engaged and the vision to carry out the projects”.
Newlab Program Manager Meera Kumar invited the second set of panelists onstage to discuss the pavement marking analysis and maintenance challenge. NYC DOT is responsible for maintaining the 6,300+ miles of centerline streets that stretch across the five boroughs. Understanding which areas are degraded and require refurbishment, as well as the prioritization of those areas, is paramount and can be an onerous process. As NYC DOT Chief Engineer for the Transportation Planning & Management Division Roger Weld put it, “Every spring, when the winter salt recedes, we have to quickly understand what [pavement markings] needs our attention.” This requires a streamlined, data-driven approach that infuses efficiency and order into the process.
Marchos Saarepera, Business Development Representative at EyeVi, an Estonian company using AI to automatically detect pavement conditions, shared the company’s pilot experience. EyeVi annotated a set of orthophotos to identify discrete line markings and then trained its AI to identify and grade paintline quality on Manhattan and Queens streets. Though EyeVi generally uses mobile mapping technology and its own fleet to map city streets, this opportunity allowed the company to demonstrate the data-agnostic possibilities of the EyeVi algorithm. Saarepera reiterated the importance of this collaboration to EyeVi’s ambitions, “Since engaging with Newlab and the NYC DOT, EyeVi incorporated in the U.S. and we are looking to raise an investment round. This opportunity was an important step in our product roadmap to adapt our offerings for U.S. market-specific needs.”
Mark Pittman, CEO at Blyncsy, a Salt Lake City company that uses crowdsourced dashcam data for real-time insights on road conditions took the stage and commended NYC DOT for being proactive and working directly with potential solution providers to understand needs in the NYC context. This pilot utilized dashcam data, which is less resource intensive than LiDAR but is within 1% of accuracy, making it an ideal option for observing road conditions. Blyncsy mapped 65 miles of roads across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens aggregated and graded this data across road segments, which is a crucial step to predictive road maintenance, and integrated the findings into NYC DOT’s databases. Over the course of the pilot, Blyncsy was able to provide information on not just road markings, but also streetlight maintenance, work zone identification, bike lane stripings, and a number of other detections.
Weld, along with Mary Bandziukas, NYC DOT GIS Analyst, shared initial impressions of both software solutions and how the pilot helped them reimagine paintline refurbishment prioritization. Instead of the traditional approach of focusing on the streets in the worst condition to determine prioritization, seeing these tools applied in real-time helped them realize it makes more sense to identify streets in the best condition and remove them from the prioritization queue. Each pilot leveraged different types of data inputs in their respective AI algorithms, and Bandziukas noted that these different sources each have their unique strengths, so it’s likely a mix of data inputs is necessary for the most comprehensive process.
The Demo Day served as a moment in time to discuss initial learnings, but the EV charging pilots will continue into early 2023 with an eye toward collecting user feedback and gleaning valuable insights for NYC DOT as it formalizes its curbside charging strategy. This work exemplifies what can happen when you convene public and private stakeholders that are united by the common theme of safer and more sustainable transportation. NYC DOT now has a more knowledgeable and nuanced understanding of the solution parameters that are critical for success and will enable widespread deployment to make these solutions a reality. Ultimately, these projects bring NYC DOT one step closer to delivering on an innovative and sustainable transportation future for all.