A speck on the map, Hillsboro, population 1,609, is a farming community that sits along Interstate 29 in the far eastern fringes of North Dakota. It is, at once, in the middle of nowhere and at the nexus of forces reshaping transportation.
Farmers are eyeing the use of automated tractors to plow fields. A nearby beet-processing facility faces a chronic shortage of truck drivers available to haul their products. Unmanned aerial systems are tested at the town's airport, where engineers pioneer systems that allow drones to fly beyond line of sight.
Soon, a self-driving shuttle bus may trundle along the town's streets. Hillsboro has applied for funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will award as much as $60 million in grants this spring to communities and organizations seeking to demonstrate automated-driving systems.
Seventy-three proposals were received by the DOT, and the list of applicants includes the usual batch of big cities, such as Boston and Los Angeles, along with state, regional and local transportation departments, and more than a dozen universities.
But the list also includes small towns and rural communities such as Adrian, Mich., and Hillsboro, as well as the Indian Nations Council of Governments, a voluntary association of local and tribal governments that conducts planning across a five-county region around Tulsa, Okla.
Far from Silicon Valley and other urban hotspots, the applications from smaller towns and organizations shows how the potential of automated-driving machines has seeped into the ambitions of communities across the country.
Like the Smart City Challenge before it, the Automated Driving System Demonstration Grants program provides a catalyst for imagining a transportation future unlocked by autonomy. This time around, multiple awards will likely be made, rather than a single one, though DOT officials haven't set a firm number that will be doled out later this spring.
For many smaller communities and entities, a little funding may go a long way. Here's a look at some of their plans.