When retailers are ready to test out their new products on something a little larger than a focus group, they go to Ohio. CBS News explained that cities like Columbus, with high student populations, sizable minority communities and plenty of expendable income, act as America’s veritable test market — and millions of food items, pieces of clothing and even improved customer service policies have been vetted by America’s Heartland before getting the OK for a national release.
However, when it comes to testing out the next generation of IoT devices, one private tech development firm is ready to leave Ohio — and humans — behind.
That’s the mission statement for Pegasus Global Holdings and Managing Director Bob Brumley. At the center of the organization’s pledge to develop a new kind of 15-square-mile testing ground on the U.S.-Mexican border for driverless cars, autonomous utilities in homes and anything else the IoT revolution has in store is the construction of the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation. While the name might elicit images of glass-paneled office buildings and white lab coats, a column by Pegasus in Wired explained that CITE will instead be modeled after a mid-sized American city. It will have a downtown section with skyscrapers, commercial areas, split-level residential neighborhoods and big-box retailers on the outskirts. Essentially, Pegasus wants CITE to be a fully functioning city with everything a 35,000-strong population would want.
Minus the 35,000 people.
“The vision is an environment where new products, services and technologies can be demonstrated and tested without disrupting everyday life,” Brumley told CNN.
Key to CITE’s viability is the growing cottage industry of driverless vehicles. While Google is hard at work monitoring a fleet of autonomous cars around the streets of Silicon Valley, Brumley hinted at tests where connected tractor-trailers ferry cargo through a busy network of traffic. Moreover, a city of nothing but machines means developers can put their products and services through true stress tests, like what would happen if an entire city’s worth of driverless cars suddenly lost signal.
CITE and Pegasus have encountered their fair share of speedbumps on the path to breaking ground. Despite announcing the project in 2012 and putting an estimated $1 billion of their own capital up, land rights and environmental issues bounced the program around until May 2015, when there was a new slew of publicity rekindled industry excitement, Network World reported. Now, it looks like CITE could open in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for a certain kind of business around roughly 2018-2020.
However, that depends on a the very premise that proper testing for the IoT world to come must be done without humans in harm’s way. Steve Rayner, co-director of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities, told Fortune that CITE would miss out on possibly the most important safety factor in IoT: how human behaviors affect the actions of autonomous machines.
“Technologies are not merely artifacts, they are social systems intermediated by materials and devices,” Rayner said. “The idea of ‘testing’ complex socio-technical systems without the people is bound to yield misleading results because real people frequently interact with materials and devices in ways that are not anticipated by the designer.”
Moreover, the issues of safety in IoT testing might not be as black and white as Pegasus and CITE believe. Google has had its driverless cars on public California roads for months now, and their regular progress reports show that while the tech certainly has bugs to be worked out, there are ways to reduce the possibility of injurious accidents. According to the company’s December 2015 report on the disengagement of the autonomous tech from its driverless cars, there were 272 such incidents from September 2014, when Google put its first cars on the road, to November 2015. However, the majority of those events took place in the first few months of the reporting period. In Q4 2014, disengagements occurred about every 785 miles. By Q4 2015, the distance between disconnections had ballooned to 5,318 miles.
And if there was any concern that Google wasn’t taking safety on public streets seriously, it should be noted that it only took an average of 0.84 seconds for the backup human driver in the cars to take the wheels.
Projects like CITE might draw plenty of media attention, but if an IoT world is supposed to make things vastly more efficient. So, perhaps, building a vacant city in the middle of the desert may not be the best way to kick off the next technological revolution.
For more on the trends and happenings within the Internet of Things market, click here to download the January edition of the PYMNTS.com Internet of Things Tracker, powered by Intel, a monthly glimpse into the world of enterprise IoT and the web of data that’s being built around it.